Keeping the Fire of Iced Earth Strong - Words with Jon Schaffer

Iced Earth, over the course of the band's roughly twenty-five year sojourn, has become the working epithet for guitarist and songwriter Jon Schaffer. As the band begins to solidify their lineup and re-ignites their fanbase with last year's "Dystopia," Iced Earth seems rejuvenated and ready to continue their march as the vanguard of speed metal's underground. Jon sat down to talk about his band then and now, his side projects, and what it took to get here.

Editor's note: It's worth noting that the views expressed here are Jon Schaffer's own, and are not endorsed by BloodyGoodHorror.com

M.DREW: Your tour is you guys, who are the speed metal veterans, then Hellyeah, who’s an echo of Pantera, and Volbeat, sort of the heavy metal Elvis. What kind of fans are showing up to this show?
JON SCHAFFER: It’s a wide range of audience, man. That’s what’s cool about it. You see, I’m a huge Volbeat fan. I haven’t actually had a band that’s excited me since I was a kid. So, when I discovered those guys, I don’t know what it is, there’s something about it I love. So I think it really appeals to people that are punk rock fans, metal fans, rock and roll fans, all that stuff is in Volbeat’s music, so you get a wide range of ages, and it’s cool. It’s been very good for Iced Earth. When we go on stage there’s a lot of people that don’t know who we are, and their hands are up and they’re digging it.
M.D: Is it a new feeling for you to be in the support role?
JS: Well, it is, but it’s a welcome one. It’s something that Iced Earth has never really been able to do. We’ve only supported three other bands in the history [of Iced Earth.] That was Blind Guardian in Europe, Megadeth on the B leg of their tour right before Dave [Mustaine] stopped the first time, I think it was 2001 or 2002. We did ten shows or something with them, and then it was Heaven and Hell in the UK. It’s something we wanted to do, but it becomes pretty political when you’re trying to get on a support tour. If your agent owes another agent a favor or there’s a management connection. It’s pretty political, so we’re never had the kind of opportunity that we’d like to, because Iced Earth…we’ve really always been preaching to the choir, we headline all the time in front of other bands. So, this is a good opportunity for us to be able to spread the word of the band and reach a new audience. We’re very happy about it.
M.D: You’re still on tour in support of your newest album. How is that going, and now that it’s been a few months since release, how do you feel about it in hindsight?
JS: I’m very proud of that album. I think it’s a good return to the roots of Iced Earth and the fanbase is very fired up. And that’s a good thing. The last decade was really pretty difficult for the band, we had a lot of lineup changes, we had management issues, the label we were on went bankrupt, all of these things made it very difficult. Iced Earth has weathered many, many storms and it’s always been an uphill battle. But it’s on the right track now. We’ve got a great crew of people working for the band, from the road crew to the management team to the lineup, the guys themselves, everybody’s really solid and in it for the right reasons. It’s really cool. I’m very happy.
M.D: It seems like in the last three or so years, your last two albums, a lot of pieces of your lineup have solidified. After all the tumult and turnover, what makes this lineup gel that those other ones did not?
JS: I don’t really know. In a band, there’s a lot of chemistry involved. You have different personalities, sometimes it works really well and sometimes it doesn’t work really well. I think the one thing that makes this so cool is that we all genuinely care about each other. We are like, fucking brothers, man. We’re road warriors together, everybody in this is in for the right reasons, I don’t feel like there’s anyone who an opportunist, who’s coming in to say that they were in Iced Earth or whatever. The guys are really happy to be here and it’s a team, man. For me, on my side of it, ever since I had my awakening, as I call it, with the Sons of Liberty project, my perspective has changed. Most of my life with Iced Earth was a love/hate relationship, and most of it was hate, because I was fucking pissed off about all of the stuff that was going on. It was a constant uphill battle, so it was like I was slamming my head against a brick wall forever and really not getting anywhere. That led to me being pretty angry and bitter. Once I really woke up to what’s happening in our country and what’s going on, it changed my perspective and it made me fall in love with the band again. And obviously, being the leader of the band, that’s important. [laughs] I’m not having fun, if I’m feeling bitter and pissed off at the shit, that’s going to reflect in the music and the personnel and the lineup and everything. There’s been a big change within me, and I also happen to think that this lineup, the chemistry of the guys I have now, it fits like a glove. We’re a family, we laugh a lot together, and it’s great.
M.D: Along those lines, the band Iced Earth as an entity has been around more than twenty-five years, it’s coming up on twenty-five years since your first release. In all that time, and with all the different faces and names that have been associated with the band, if you could do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?
JS: You know, probably not, actually. I think every change for this band was necessary, and I’ve learned so much that to go back and change it would mean that I hadn’t learned anything, you know? Probably the only thing that I regret is the way the separation with Tim [“Ripper” Owens] was handled. Like I said, we were going through some pretty severe management problems at the time, and that was one of the results. There’s decisions I guess I wish I would have made or had been handled differently, but overall, we’ve learned, and learned the hard way. There’s been plenty of hard ways in the history of Iced Earth, like I said it’s been an uphill battle from the very inception.
M.D: All these years later, how does somebody still have the passion to make music?
JS: You know, it’s who I am, dude. It’s what I do. For me, songwriting’s always been my release. It’s my anger and my passions and all of those devotions, it’s the way I get it out. So I can’t ever imagine doing anything else and I think when you continually try to grow and learn as much as possible, which is what I try to do, I think it helps keep that spark alive. I think it helps you grow as a songwriter. At least, I hope I’ve grown, that’s my goal.
M.D: Iced Earth has written albums over the years about damn near everything. Comic books, horror films, politics, associations with novels and characters and concept pieces; where do you take your inspiration from at any given moment?
JS: It just depends on what sparks me. For me, the world situation, the situation in the United States, my awakening had a hell of lot to do with this being a dystopia. I believe the United States is in a very dystopian system, and it’s just getting worse and worse all the time. The whole Big Brother thing, the police state…it’s a fascist, criminal federal government. It’s out of control. I’ve been studying history since I was old enough to read, and I see us going down a very dangerous path here. I have real concerns, man. I’ve done the research, so people who say ‘oh, you’re crazy,’ you know, whatever. I don’t give a fuck. Say what you gotta say, but I actually read a lot of books, and do a lot of research, and I know what’s going on.

I have no idea what the next Iced Earth record will be, I have no idea, I’m not even in that frame of mind yet. The last album came out in October last year, we’re still gonna be on the road at least another eight to ten months. I’m gonna start trying to do some principle songwriting this Fall, that’s been the plan.

M.D: Speaking of the politics and the history and Sons of Liberty, other musicians in heavy metal, most notably Dave Mustaine, have taken stances and taken some backlash for it. Are you worried a heavily politicized stance may turn off some Iced Earth’s fans?
JS: No, I don’t really a give a fuck. It’s not an Iced Earth product, it’s Sons of Liberty and if Iced Earth fans don’t like it, I don’t really care. My goal is not to please everybody. My goal is to satisfy myself as an artist and to put out a message I think is very important. [Sons of Liberty] is not really political, that’s the thing; it’s about freedom versus slavery. It’s not left or right. The whole two-party system is a sham. Mega-banks and the industry control both parties and give the people the impression that there’s a difference, while these fucking puppet scumbags come out and talk up their base. At the end of the day, they serve their masters, and that’s the banks and the military industrial complex, and that’s who runs this world. People need to understand what’s really going on. The financial system…I think if everybody really understood what the Federal Reserve system was, and how much of a cancer it is on the world, that there would be some drastic changes happening. We’re in a hell of a mess and there’s not going to be any easy way out of it, that’s for sure. Of course, some people are going to get the wrong idea about it, but I don’t care, the message is too important to worry about that. The people who get it, the people who understand it…Sons of Liberty has spawned chapters all over the world, these are people that are sharing information and going to protests and passing out CDs. It’s the soundtrack to the revolution, man.

M.D: Abruptly switching topics, you’ve spent a lot of your career as a rhythm guitarist. I think rhythm guitarists generally go underappreciated. What is it that a rhythm guitarist brings to a band in your opinion?
JS: Well, if they’re good, timing. [laughs] And Iced Earth is all about the timing. Our songs are based on the rhythm guitar. That’s just what it is, man. If you look at AC/DC, Malcolm Young is their secret weapon. Not only does he come up with some of the coolest riffs, but that rhythm section is badass. Without a good rhythm section…the band is no good without a good rhythm section. It’s like building a house with a shitty foundation; it just doesn’t work. So when you get guys like John Paul Jones and John Bonham, that’s one of the most badass rhythm sections ever. A good rhythm guitarist, with a bass and drummer that are really tight, makes for a seriously fucking powerful timing, dude.
M.D: Do you personally ever feel underappreciated as a rhythm guitarist?
JS: Actually, no. I think people who are fans of the band are aware. The typical radio listener type of person has no depth about anything. [laughs] I don’t care. I do my thing and the people who get it really appreciate it, and I obviously appreciate them. But really, it doesn’t matter.
M.D: Iced Earth practically leads the league in badass album covers. Who does your art, and how much input do you have on it?
JS: I’ve had different artists through the years, and I have all the input on it. It’s usually a very detailed concept that I give the artist, and it always has my character set on the cover no matter what the theme is. I think he’s been on every cover since at least “The Glorious Burden.” It’s about direction, really. My tattoo artists started on “Framing Armageddon” and did “The Crucible of Man,” and they also did “Dystopia.” They’ve been involved, and it’s line art basically, it’s a very comic book style, we get another artist to do the color on a computer, but we’ve had different guys through the years.
M.D: “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is a quote from “Macbeth,” but it’s also a Ray Bradbury novel. Which one does the name of the album come from?
JS: I don’t really know. Probably more the novel, because I knew it was the title of a novel. It’s not like a I read Macbeth and that inspired it. More, it was something I heard and I liked it. Plus, it contains the “Something Wicked” story, which tells the story of Set [Abominae], his introduction and all the craziness that follows.
M.D: Speaking of “Something Wicked” and it’s parts, you ended up having to change singers in mid-project. Did that cause a disruption, and do you wish it had gone differently?
JS: Yeah, I wish there wouldn’t have been a change at all, but it is what it is, it’s something that needed to happen. From a fan perspective, I think it’s a bigger deal. For me as a songwriter, it’s not. I’m looking for top quality musicians each time I’m working with somebody. From my standpoint telling the story, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m the guy writing the stuff. I can’t really think from a fan perspective, it just doesn’t work. It’s a completely different mindset that I just don’t have. I mean, I like “Framing Armageddon” a lot better than “Crucible,” but that’s on me. I lost three family members the year I was writing those records and by the time my sister passed away, I was devastated. It was like every four months somebody died. My brother, my dad, my sister, it was fucking brutal. It affected my writing there’s no question. I was really down and “Crucible” was not arranged in a way…I don’t listen to Iced Earth much at all, but when I listen to that album, I can hear arrangement decisions that I never normally make. I just go ‘what the fuck were you thinking, man?’ It’s a big deal, the arrangements are hugely, hugely important to the song, and there are some really good tracks on that album, but overall, I think the album is weak. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s my fault for my head not being in the game at that point.
M.D: There’s been a trend lately where bands take an old album and retrofit it or remaster it, is that something you’d ever consider doing for that album?
JS: For “Crucible,” no. We’ve done that for the first three albums where the production was so bad, but that’s it. To do that would require a lot of time that I don’t think is really worth it. With physical sales going down like they are, and everybody is feeling it, doing that kind of stuff is costly. Bands are surviving on touring and merchandise now, album sales have really dropped because people are downloading stuff. Some people are buying it from iTunes so the bands get some kind of a royalty, but a lot of people are stealing music and fucking everything up. Doing things like [remastering] are not really worth it from a financial standpoint.
M.D: Late last year, there was a brief video released suggesting that there would be another Demons and Wizards album, is there any progress on that?
JS: Well, we haven’t don’t anything. Fans want another Demons and Wizards album and Hanzi [Kürsch] and I are aware of that. It’s just timing, you know? Timing issues, our schedules don’t seem to line up. The thing that I don’t want to do is…Iced Earth has a lot of fucking momentum going right now, and I don’t want to stop and do a Demons album. To do Demons the right way, for Hanzi and I to go out and promote it and tour, which there’s a huge demand for, is going to take a couple years to really do it the way we want to. I don’t want to rush it, like ‘okay, we have this time window, let’s put out a record and then never do any shows.’ I really don’t want to do that. We’ll probably write a few songs here and there, but when will there be a new album? That’s really hard to say.
M.D: After 25 years, do you find it easier to be on the road? Do you get used to the feeling of separation and not being home a lot with your family?
JS: Yeah…I mean it’s not easy being on the road at all, actually. It’s very taxing. But you deal with it. In today’s music world, if you’re gonna be a musician/songwriter, this is what you have to do, you have to tour. You can’t rely on album sales and shit like you could six, seven years ago. Things are changing rapidly and bands have to perform.
M.D: You mentioned at the top that Volbeat impresses and excites you. Who else are you listening to now?
JS: There’s not much that I’m listening to that isn’t what I grew up with. I’m a huge Roger Waters fan, so I just went to see “The Wall” live, some of the guys in the band and I and our crew went to see the show in Indianapolis and it was amazing, the best concert I’ve ever seen in my life. I always listen to Floyd and I listen to Maiden. Also, Adrenaline Mob, Russell Allen from Symphony X’s band. Russell and I got to be good friends on that tour and we hit it off great. We went to his record release party, we happened to have a day off in New York when that was happening, so we went there and supported those guys. I’ve been listening to that album quite a bit. So I would say the Mob and Volbeat are about the only new bands that I’m listening to.

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