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Interview conducted February 19 2014
Interview published February 28 2014

Jon Schaffer and his Iced Earth visited Stockholm, Sweden on February 19th. The band had a tight schedule and I entered the venue during the band's soundcheck and I got to see both Burning Times and V performed on and off. A shorter photo shoot took place and finally after that, Jon and I could sit down for a while in the dining room. I had to cut my sheet short and unfortunately during my last questions, dinner had already started and right after that the band had a meet & greet.

Although things didn't pan out to every expectation and Jon was a little stressed out due to time issues, he definitely is a courteous man and he took his time to answer my questions about the new album and other stuff properly.

Tobbe: In my point of view, the new album Plagues Of Babylon, has definite resemblances to your latest album, Dystopia. Was this like a conscious choice from your side or did you just write an album in the Iced Earth vein?

Jon: Well, it's just an album in the Iced Earth vein. I mean, the same approach was taken that we did to Dystopia, so it's just another chapter, you know it's what happens naturally, every record is. If you start doing something that's too contrived, then it becomes something that's not natural. Whether people get it or not, you know that's another issue, but we have to do what we're feeling at the time.

Tobbe: A few songs like Peacemaker and also the cover, Highwayman differ from the rest of the songs. Was that to bring some variation or diversity into the record?

Jon: No, but it's a very natural process that does. I mean, if you can show me any Iced Earth album that doesn't have diversity, then you're showing me something that I'm not aware of at all. Because every album has pits and valleys, and it has a lot of different emotions, and it's a dynamic rollercoaster ride and it always is. But Peacemaker, I think, is a very different song in general for Iced Earth. It's more of a hard rock kind of a Thin Lizzy metal upped kind of thing and that just happened. I wasn't even sure I was gonna use it for Iced Earth. I did this instrumental file and put it all together. You know, it was one of the first things I wrote musically and I played it for some friends down in Uruguay, and they were getting goose bumps, and this was before we did any vocal parts on. So I was like "Well, that's a pretty good sign" and I did it to 2 different guys at 2 different times and they both had the same reaction. So when Stu [Block, vocalist] got there, I played it for him and he was into it. He said "Man, that's cool. I'm getting like a Western vibe off of it". So I was like "Okay. That's a different kind of an element" and we discussed where to go with it from the story standpoint and it just ended up becoming an Iced Earth song. You know, it could have been shelved and used for Demons [& Wizards] or for Sons [Of Liberty] or whatever, or maybe never used at all. I mean, sometimes there's files like that, that I make up, that I forget about them and they end up, you know, somewhere. Yeah, it is different, there's no doubt, but it wasn't contrived. It was just a piece of music that came out of me and like I said, in the beginning I wasn't even sure what I was gonna do with it.

Tobbe: So where do you get all your killer riffs from?

Jon: Man, I don't know. I think it's… Thank you, that's a very nice compliment. I think it's just, to staying hungry and to staying like aggressive and I think it keeps the ideas flowing. But I really don't know, man. They just come. A lot of records now, I've done a lot of records.

Tobbe: The first half of the album is a concept story. What happened then, did you run out of fuel or inspiration?

Jon: No, I just decided very early on that there's no reason to devote the entire album to this chapter of the Something Wicked story. I felt like we can tell it for 5 or 6 songs and we already had things like Peacemaker, that wouldn't fit at all in the story, and I already had the music for Cthulhu. It was different, you know. Different things were happening, and the decision to do Spirit Of The Times from Sons Of Liberty and to finally be able to do Highwayman with my brother singing on it, you know that was like a big deal, so it didn't make sense to have a full concept album where Highwayman wouldn't have fit. It's very different, you know. It's kind of like an old Rush record, that was the idea, like 2112 was a concept on one side and on the other it's individual tracks. Early on, that was decided.

Tobbe: Your new album was released about 6 weeks ago and naturally your fans don't approach you and say it sucks big-time, but how do you think the fans' reaction have been thus far?

Jon: Very strong. As usual, and I've been doing this for a very long time, you never gonna please everybody, but the overwhelming majority is very happy and the majority of the fan base thinks it's one of the strongest in the catalogue, and I agree. I think it's got all of the elements of Iced Earth. I think the first half is really heavy and really intense. But I think it comes down into a very dynamic, where the first part of the record isn't very dynamic, it's constant like this [slams his fist and hand together 4 times], it has a couple of parts, but then you know, the back half of the record really is where the rollercoaster ride kicks in. But it's getting a great response, that's definitely. I mean, our chart positions are high, the fan base is fired up. It's always hard, for probably with you guys, to judge that in Scandinavia, cause the band is so small here. We were selling lots of tickets in Central Europe and of course down in Greece it's always the same. They're unbelievable, the fans down there.

Tobbe: Yes, you recorded your live album and DVD down there. That must feel good even if you're pretty far into your career? You've been around for a while.

Jon: Oh yeah, it's great.

Tobbe: Do you ever reflect on what's published about your new albums, you know reviews and stuff?

Jon: I've seen some, but I don't really care. I really care more about what the fans say and I meet them and talk to them. What journalists say, I don't care. It really doesn't make any difference to me whatsoever, because it's like a lot of journalists, especially the guys that have been doing this a long time, they're so jaded and they hear so many new records. In the end, a lot of them don't even have a fresh, legitimate opinion as far as I'm concerned, so they don't really count, you know what I mean. At the end of the day, it's the people who buy the music, who consume the music, who are the ones who pay the bills for me. Those are the fans, the people I care about. And as I said, you can tell from facebook comments and from a lot of whatever's been put out on YouTube and stuff, the fan base is really happy. But journalists, why worry? I mean, it's really a waste of time.

Tobbe: I see your point.

Jon: They don't buy anything, so.

Tobbe: Yes, they do. I still buy things.

Jon: That's cool. I mean, of course there's some, but I mean in general. They get sent the stuff by the label and then they judge it based on that. And they're jaded, because they're hearing stuff all day from a million different bands.

Tobbe: Actually I listened to your record over 30 times before I reviewed it.

Jon: That's great, man. That's cool, that's cool.

Tobbe: Okay, no time to get further into that. Why did you eventually decide to rework Spirit Of The Times for this album? [Originally released with Schaffer's vocals for Sons Of Liberty.]

Jon: Because the Sons Of Liberty thing is so grassroots that this actually gives it a shot at reaching more people and we all like the songs and I thought we'd do something different with it. You know a different way of recording, tuning it, different speed. Little things that take it to another place, but it's very clearly the same song and Stu has a different approach to it of course, totally different kind of singer. Everybody liked the song and it fits, you know, it certainly fits with Highwayman, because if you think about how dark the record is overall, they both have that sort of "You may kill me, both you'll never kill my spirit" attitude and I think it's a kind of strong statement as a closure, especially to the first half of the album which is very dark. I think it ends on a positive note.

Tobbe: If I Could See You is definitely a typical Iced Earth ballad. Where do you get your energy to write those songs? You know, you have done songs like this one before.

Jon: That was one I wrote in memory of my grandfather and I think it's just something that's been stirring for a long time. You know, it just happens when it's supposed to. Watching Over Me was many years after my friend [Bill Blackmon] past away. So I mean, sometimes it just takes a while for those things to come to light.

Tobbe: Iced Earth is like your band, it's your kind of solo project and has been for a long time. What's the best about being in a situation where you can make all the calls?

Jon: I don't really look at it that way. It's not a solo project, Sons Of Liberty is a solo project, you know. But I've always been the leader of this band and always will be. I mean, it's my vision and it has been since the mid 80's. It's the thing I've been chasing all along. It's a battle, especially in the early days. The contractual conditions we were under were brutal and I don't think most people would have survived through that. All the changes and all the slavery like conditions made for difficult situations. It was not only the name Iced Earth controlled, but me individually, so I couldn't just break up Iced Earth and start another band. It was either finish it or "it's over". You know, one of those kind of things. I realized, basically nobody was gonna stop me, "I don't care who is quitters or couldn't handle it, whatever, I'm going forward".

Tobbe: Sometimes I admire you guys, you know, for being on the road and being away from home for such long times. Where do you actually find the energy to be away from home, and all these sacrifices, and through all the hard times?

Jon: It's in your blood, it's what you do. For me, it's not really a… I mean, I hate being away from my daughter, obviously. But you know, there's a lot of guys that do this that have families and I call it the Curse, man. You have the Curse and you have that drive and you have that music that's brewing inside of you and if you wanna be a songwriter in a heavy metal band, you have to do this. It's not like country music, where you can sell your songs and being just a songwriter. Heavy metal guys wanna make their own music, so it's a different kind of a thing and it's a way of life.

Tobbe: Totally. I could never do that, never.

Jon: It's tough, it's hard.

Tobbe: Let's talk about Stu for a while. It's been 2 records now and a few years since he joined the band. I reckon that you had a lot of choices when you picked him. If you now look back at it, why did you eventually decide to go for him?

Jon: Well I mean, he's great, man. He's got a great depth of character, he's a really special guy. Beyond his vocal ability, his personality fits perfect with us and on distant times that's almost more important, you know. We were just talking, he's been in the band for 3 years now. When you do the things that we've done, 2 CDs, a DVD and 250+ live shows in that period, it's like a bonding process that really solidifies. I just knew it, when I met Stu, and I can see the reason that I really was interested in trying him out, cause I could see in his eyes that he's a fucking fiery spirit. Really into it, very emotional and in depth. Coming into a band like Iced Earth, it's even more so, because he has so many more dynamics and so much more for his voice to breathe and to explore new avenues and everything, cause it's a very dynamic band, you know. I can't ask for a better partner in this, in that position. No way. It's great.

Tobbe: Stu's appearance is more like really heavy metal upon stage, if compared to Matt Barlow and Tim [Ripper] Owens [2 of the band's former vocalists]. He's a greater visual experience for a crowd to see.

Jon: Yeah, I guess. The days before everybody having shit on YouTube, we had our first singer [Gene Adam] and the second singer [John Greely] and both were great on stage too. The first one was more like a metal version of Alice Cooper and the fans loved him and we had a great European tour. His voice was just not moving into rate with the songwriting. That was clear, that this was gonna be a problem, cause I could see where the writing was going and the ability wasn't there. They all have had their special thing and I can't say anyone's really better than anybody else, it's not fair. Matt has that really cool like tragic hero kind of feeling, but he has never wanted to be all over the stage and going crazy. For me the best frontman in music ever is [Bruce] Dickinson and I love Ronnie [James Dio] too, but he was totally different, but he was…command, you know what I mean. Not that Dickinson doesn't, but a totally different style. You can't say one's better than the other, they're just different and they have their own charisma. When you have the mic in that position, I guess you find what it is that works for you.

Tobbe: This is bad timing since you're obviously on tour with Iced Earth, but what's the status of Sons Of Liberty nowadays?

Jon: There's no time for it, you know. I mean, not really, not on any kind of an active scale. The band [Iced Earth] is too busy and it was already a lot when I was writing Dystopia and doing the new Sons thing [Spirit Of The Times EP] as well and since then we've been going nonstop. I get asked about Sons and Demons & Wizards all the time.

Tobbe: Sons Of Liberty again. Will there ever be physical release for Spirit Of The Times?

Jon: Maybe. I don't know. It's not even planned right now. That was never about really sell CDs or merch. It was just music to motivate people.

Tobbe: Did you ever think about doing something different with Sons Of Liberty? You know, a totally different style of metal?

Jon: No. I mean, I write songs the way I write songs. It doesn't matter what moniker you put on it, it's not gonna change radically. And the way I approach music in Demons & Wizards is basically my musical arrangements and then Hansi [Kürsch, also in Blind Guardian] does his vocal arrangements and that's what creates the Frankenstein, you know what I mean. But it's not radically different. I don't think about things like that. It's just gotta come out, honestly and naturally, and then it works.

Tobbe: Sons Of Liberty is more a statement, like a political statement. Were you always interested in politics and people's rights?

Jon: Yeah, I was. Even though I hate to think of Sons Of Liberty as being a political thing. I think it's more of a freedom thing and we're all losing it on a global scale, so it's no joke. I was thinking, when people were political, they're picking like up a sign, like left or right, and that has nothing to do with Sons Of Liberty. In our country, both political parties suck equally, you know what I mean, so it's not about that.

See also: review of the album Plagues Of Babylon

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