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Interviews   

Iced Earth: Jon Schaffer, prophet of a dystopia


Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth’s leader and guitar player, is a worried man. He’s worried by the turn the society in which he lives is taking, particularly the American one. Known for being very supportive of his country, he’s nonetheless very critical regarding how it is evolving nowadays, especially in the context of the economical crisis we all know.

But John Schaffer is also an angry man. He’s angry because he tried to understand, to know, to research and to explain, then became aware of the corruption filling the world, a world that’s doomed, according to him, if the true, painful, power-overthrowing revolution doesn’t happen. This is the shout sent by Schaffer in Iced Earth’s new album entitled Dystopia that will be released the 17th of October. The pack’s leader explains everything about that in the following interview. Just like he did through his project Sons Of Liberty, he considers his duty to encourage people to think about the state of the world and the politics.

Regarding the future of the band, he’s way less worried, and actually rather optimistic, especially about Stu Block (Into Eternity)’s new arrival. A singer with a surprising and dynamic range from whom he mangaged to get the best thanks to his coaching, making a very strong record.

As an introduction, Schaffer go back over emblematic singer Matt Barlow’s departure and its circumstances. Good occasion to evoke and understand the impact of both the musical industry and the consumers behavior’s changes on an artist like Iced Earth, who built his fame in the metal world.

Have a great read.

(About Stu Block) « I love the look in his eyes when he performs, and the intensity and passion that he has. […] When you have guys like that that have all the abilities in the world and they have great attitudes, you can accomplish anything. »

Radio Metal : Matt Barlow left the band earlier this year. Was his departure something that had been brooding for a while or did it happen out of the blue?

Jon Schaffer (guitars) : Well, it happened out of necessity, really. You know, when Matt came back in 2008 the music industry was in a different situation back then. He came back kind of as a part-time thing, while he still worked as a police officer the whole time that he was in the band, but he was able to take some vacation time and go out on tour, do a few shows here and there, that kind of stuff. But you know, as things have kind of unraveled in the music business, and physical CD sales are going down, you’ve got a lot of retail stores closing and record labels going bankrupt, things are kind of tough: the band has to play more, we have to perform more live. So our management approached Matt and said “Hey, we’ve got a really busy schedule coming up, and we’d really love for you to come on board full-time.” I mean, Matt obviously could’ve made a lot more money being a full-time singer in Iced Earth than a police officer, but that’s really not what it’s about; it’s about being with his family and he chose a different path several years ago for his life, and even though he was missing music, he just kind of wants to do it as a part time thing, that really can’t work anymore for Iced Earth. So we were forced to make a decision of just survival for the band. Matt totally understands and he knew that he was going to hold the band back if he stayed in, so he retired and we had a great sendoff for him at Wacken, that was his last show with the band. He said goodbye to the band and the fans and we had a big party afterwards and it was really cool.

You have qualified the band’s current situation as a new beginning. How would you compare this situation to the one when Tim Owens came into the band after Matt’s first departure?

This is very different, because number one, The Glorious Burden album was already written, all the parts were already written, and Tim wasn’t committed, he was coming in and doing a job, and he had a lot of desire to go on a solo career, but the Iced Earth opportunity was there so he took it but he was kind of a hired gun, and he was never really committed to the band, so that’s a really different thing. With Stu, he’s totally committed, and he was there not for the writing of the music but for the writing of the lyrics and the vocal melodies, he was very involved in it. So we shared those duties, that’s the thing that’s very different, he has already contributed more than any singer has in terms of writing credits, and he has just stepped into it and done a great job. He’s totally committed to this, it’s really great because since 9/11 happened, we haven’t had that kind of… you know, since that had such a big impact on Matt, you know, it made him start questioning his life and what he was doing. We just haven’t had that kind of commitment in a long time.

Do you think there is real chemistry between Stu and you? Because with Matt there was great chemistry, so do you think you’ll be able to reproduce that?

It’s a different chemistry, but there’s definitely real chemistry between Stu and I. Of course there was chemistry between Matt and I, but this is just different. With Matt, he was great to produce, he used to call me “coach” when he first joined the band, and Stu is doing the same thing. Stu has a very similar attitude and work ethics and even a similar background, you know, both those guys took drama class in high-school. So there’s a lot of similarities there, and when I’m writing songs, producing singers, I’m very, very involved in the process, and when you have guys like that that have all the abilities in the world and they have great attitudes, you can accomplish anything. So I’m sure the chemistry is going to be different, but it’s going to be great. It is great. I don’t know if you’ve heard the record, but it’s the strongest album we’ve done in years.

The last two singers in Iced Earth Ripper Owens and Matt Barlow had two very distinct styles and vocal tones. But what is striking with Stu is that he often sounds surprisingly close to Matt but also does these Judas Priest like screaming. You get the best of both worlds in a sense and even more. Was it this dynamic vocal range that convinced you to choose him?

Well of course. Actually, he didn’t even know he had that kind of a dynamic range. He knew that he had a dynamic range, but he never sung like that before. This is all totally new to Stu, and this is part of the production process, when I’m coaching a singer and writing a song… I don’t think Stu sounds anything like Matt, I think what you’re hearing is Iced Earth, man; it’s the way the songs are structured and produced. Stu was in a progressive death metal band, so he was singing deep growl vocals, and doing really high screams, but he never used the middle part of his voice, and when he came to audition that was my thing, I was like “Well dude, we’ve got to try to open your voice up” because I love the look in his eyes when he performs, and the intensity and passion that he has, but Into Eternity was 100% different than Iced Earth, so you have to explore the voice and see if it’s the right thing. Once I got him out for the audition, I knew he was going to be able to do this, even if it was new to him to sing like this. You know, this is a whole new direction for Stu and he’s doing great, but it’s only going to get better with time. Stu is a fan of Matt’s, he’s a fan of many different singers, but I’d venture to say that you’re hearing that this is Iced Earth’s writing style and production style. If you were to really analyze the voice, I don’t think it would be really similar. But that’s just me, I don’t know.

« In the United States, it’s terrible actually. […] It’s turned into a police state, we’re going to have a major financial crash, we have martial law, we have military on the streets, and you can’t fly in a fucking airplane without either going through the radiation thing or getting your balls felt up by a TSA agent. »

Actually when we’ve heard Stu in his other band Into Eternity, we barely recognize him on Dystopia. Did you give him guidelines in order for him to adapt his voice to the Iced Earth style?

Absolutely, he has to be able to do what I’m asking. I’m the chief songwriter and the driving force in the band, so he has to be able to do what I want him to do or he’s not going to get the gig, you know. And he’s very capable, he’s got a great attitude, and he’s willing to try everything. I can work with any musician that’s like that, I can pull things out of them they never knew they had, but they’ve got to have good attitudes and be willing to try.

Have you ever thought of using his death metal capacity in Iced Earth?

No, I don’t like death metal. I asked him to do a couple of buried in the mix sort of things, like in Boiling Point, at the very end in the really high “boiling point” where there’s also a death metal “boiling point” underneath that . It’s not very loud in the mix, but it’s there just as a cool texture. So there were a couple of things I asked him to do but I have no interest in having death metal lead vocals in Iced Earth. That’s never going to happen.

I assume you began composing before Stu came in the band. So was it any different for you to write these songs without knowing who will end up singing on them?

No. That’s not the way it works. The music of Iced Earth is the music of Iced Earth, and the vocals really have to adapt and work within that window. I don’t know any real songwriter that writes music for the vocals. The vocals come later, it’s not the way it works.

With your new album you explore dystopian themes from movies and literatures. What fascinates you in these rather dark and hopeless themes?

Well, some of the songs are based on movies, they’re dystopian in their nature, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s paralleled in reality right now: there’s some very disturbing things going on in the world so there are parallels of reality and there’s some stuff from the Something Wicked story, the two songs Dystopia and Tragedy and Triumph, and then you have many songs that are very uplifting and inspire hope. Anthere is a very positive song, Tragedy and Triumph is a very positive song, Iron will, which will be a bonus track on the digipack version, that’s a very inspired and powerful song. So it’s a good balance of good message versus bad message, or “reality”, let’s put it that way.

In Iced Earth you either write about history or about fictions. Does this help you in a certain way to better understand today’s world and where we’re heading at?

Yeah, I think if people get inspired to research and learn what’s happening around them, and stop watching television and stop listening to their criminal governments, and kind of reconnect with their humanity and do some research, you can find out what’s happening and that’s going to turn things around. If people can have a clear understanding, then I think we can prevent things from really going bad. Because it feels like it’s getting ready to go really bad.

Do you think a dystopia is where our world is heading at?

I do, yeah. I think we’re very close to that, especially in the West. In the United States, it’s terrible actually. Things are so bad there, and they’ve been going that way for a long time, but it’s just gotten worse and worse and worse at a record pace. It’s turned into a police state, we’re going to have a major financial crash, we have martial law, we have military on the streets, and you can’t fly in a fucking airplane without either going through the radiation thing or getting your balls felt up by a TSA agent. It’s just tyranny, that’s what it is: there’s no liberty left in America. It’s time for a revolution.

« We’ve got the Fourth Reich rising, and I don’t like it. »

Actually, many people think that the world crisis we’re going through is the sign that we have reached the limits of the capitalist system upon which the American economic system is based. What’s your opinion about that?

I think that what we have is not real and certainly not free market capitalism. We have corporatism, we have fascism, we have communism, we have all these different forms of totalitarianism, but we certainly don’t have free markets, and that’s the problem, and this has been a rigged game for a long time by the global elite that have seized control of the American monetary system through fraud and deception back in 1913 with the signing of the Federal Reserve Act. When that institution was established, the United States of America ceased to exist and now it’s accelerating. The collapse is coming because none of these fiat currencies ever last. They never last. A hundred years is about as long as anyone has ever lasted and we’re getting close to that point, so I think that what needs to happen is an honest monetary system, instead of this fraudulent paper system, needs to be put back into place.

We need to go back to some kind of commodity-based currency, whether it’s gold and silver or whatever, something that takes effort and that governments can’t just create money out of thin air and spread the warfare and the welfare empires that they are doing. I mean, all of our governments are involved in some really brutal criminal stuff, and it’s based on this fraudulent monetary system, and that’s what it roots from. So if we have sound money and free markets, then I think we would have prosperity and peace, but with a criminal monetary institution like the Federal Reserve which really owns and runs the United States, Bush has no power, Obama has no power, Clinton… these guys were just puppets for the banks. They may come out and tell you whatever rhetoric they want to tell you, politicians are professional liars, so they’re going to come out and say what the people are going to hear, but it’s divide and conquer tactics man, the only way to turn the world around is to get smart about monetary policies and to go back to a more sound and honest monetary system and to stop the wars and stop the welfare state and work towards liberty and prosperity.

I know you have always been very proud of your own country, but when I hear you talking right now about it, I hear some disappointment in your words…

I’m proud of what America stood for in the beginning, what the founding ideals were, I mean I didn’t realize until a few years ago what my country has really become. I mean, we are being deceived in America, you are too. Your government’s deceiving you too, and so is Germany, so is the UK, I mean, the whole West is going down the shitter. And we’re all being deceived by the same group of people, it’s a hostile corporate take-over of the Western world they call the New World Order and they’re trying to put about a world government. They’re talking about it openly now. So the people in the United States and in the West are victims of high tech propaganda. It’s worse in the United States, clearly, people have become far too trusting of the government. For me, my big wake-up was when I learned about the financial system and how fraudulent it is. And then everything started to make sense of how all of this deception is going on, it’s very disturbing when you do the research, and that’s what the Sons Of Liberty project was all about. If you go to the website, there’s a great booklist there, there are great documentaries to watch and it will let people know what’s going on and inspire them to learn and to get prepared, because I think we’ve got the Fourth Reich rising, and I don’t like it.

The last two Iced Earth albums were based on the story from the Something Wicked Trilogy that appeared on the 1998 album. But the opening and closing songs on Dystopia both go back to this storyline. It sounds like it’s hard for you to detach yourself from this story, as if it was an obsession…

It’s not an obsession, it’s something to write about. You know, it’s a big story, it’s twelve thousand years of human history, it’s never-ending story-telling, so why not do it? Especially on an album where you have dystopian themes, it’s the perfect thing.

Actually, in some interview you gave in 2008, you have stated that you didn’t see what you could tell more about this story, so I guess there was more to tell in the end.

There’s way more to tell. I mean, dude, it’s twelve thousand years of human history, it’s un-ending story telling. You can take any point in human history, let’s take the Napoleonic wars for instance, you can take that and you can apply it to the Something Wicked universe and come up with all these different scenarios, you know. It’s that way with everything, from the crucifixion of Christ to… you name it, man, you pick out any human event in twelve thousand years and you can take it and there’s never-ending story-telling. That’s what’s so cool with the Something Wicked plot-line.

Could there be a third Something Wicked album in the future?

I doubt it. I mean, I don’t have any desire to get any deeper in the story in the future, but I may write the occasional song that exposes something else from the story line. Dude, I just do whatever I feel like I want to do when the songwriting starts, I don’t think about it. I just finished this album two weeks ago, so I’m not into discussing what’s going to happen next (laughs) it’s too early in the process.

Back in 2008 you have stated in an interview that you planned to release in a boxed set a version of Framing Armageddon with Matt on vocal and that it would give you the opportunity to go back and address some of the productions issues you had with that one. But in the end this is not what happened, although a boxed set did come out but with both original Something Wicked albums… Why didn’t things happen the way you wanted?

Well, I actually didn’t have any production issues with Framing Armageddon, the album kicks ass, that’s not why we were going to do it. We were going to do it just to make it more consistent, but at the end of the day SPV was going bankrupt, and it costs money to do that kind of stuff. It costs money to go into the studio and record, it costs money to remix and they were in trouble financially so it didn’t happen. But I don’t have any problems with Framing Armageddon, it’s a great album, it’s great the way it is. There’s no production issues, that’s not why we were going to do it, we were going to do it just to make both albums more consistent, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter.

(About musical industry’s decline) « I don’t like it, I don’t like having my property stolen, I don’t think anybody does. But if you’re faced with a situation, which in this case is just a microcosm of much bigger problems, you just have to deal with it and figure out ways to get other income. »

I’ve heard rumors about a comic you had started featuring the Set Abominae character, is this true?

We talked about it, it’s just a time-issue man, I just can’t take on all the projects. I’ve got the artist in place, and if I’m given time to do it the right way, then I will, but it’s almost like starting another career, and I just can’t do that. It’ll happen someday, but it’ll be several years from now I’m sure.

You have often showed disgust for the music industry. So what are your thoughts now about the difficulties it is now experiencing? I know you have actually addressed about the Century Media / Spotify issue…

I think it’s a big result from the fact that we have this whole entitlement attitude with the youth of today, where they think they just deserve stuff for free because it’s easy to take it. It’s kind of a little microcosm into the decline of Western civilization, I think. Unfortunately, bands are suffering because people are stealing music. So we just have to face that fact that the industry has changed, it’s kind of devastated by the file sharing and bands have to make income in other ways. I have already accepted that fact, I mean I don’t like it, I don’t like having my property stolen, I don’t think anybody does. But if you’re faced with a situation, which in this case is just a microcosm of much bigger problems, you just have to deal with it and figure out ways to get other income. So I disagree with Century Media’s choice, but I totally understand why they’re doing it, I just think I’ve already accepted the fact that this is the way it is and, we should at least use Spotify to help spread the word so the occasional honest kid that thinks about stuff and thinks about the big picture will maybe go buy the CD or maybe go buy the download instead of just stealing it.

You said that you disagree with their decision, but in the end your voice isn’t counting. Is it frustrating for you?

No, it’s their company man, they’ve got hundreds of other artists and they think they’re doing what’s right for themselves and the artists and maybe they are, I just kind of see the writing on the wall. I think that the record labels are going to be extinct before too long, and they’re going to have to figure out other ways to make income to stay in business because the physical sales are dropping all the time.

Do you have any news from Demons And Wizard? Do you think we can expect a third album someday?

There definitely will be, it’s a matter of time. Hansi (Kürsch, Blind Guardian) and I would love to do it, we’re just both really busy doing our main bands which is what we have to do because we have other guys that rely on that. But yeah, we’ll do it.

Do you plan on doing another solo album in the future, like Sons Of Liberty?

Yeah, I have an EP coming out in December with five songs in it for Sons Of Liberty. Really, my manager said “Hey, if you’re going to do Sons of Liberty stuff, you’d better do it now because you’re going to be on the road for a year and a half.” So I decided to crank out five Sons Of Liberty songs and record them at the same time and put it out there just to keep the people motivated because it’s really having an effect. It’s an underground grassroots movements but there’s been 200 000 free downloads, and I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of copies have been passed around to people just to try to get people to think. So it’s a good weapon against the globalist agenda and it’s been a good tool to wake people up, so I’ve got to keep it going.

So it’s going to be about the same theme revolving around the album, like corrupt world-leaders etc?

Yeah, it’s totally the same vibe, it’s all based on the same kind of thing. There’s one song that’s sort of an allegory, it’s based on Leonidas. If you haven’t seen the movie 300, it’s about the Spartan king Leonidas, and how he stood up against I don’t know how many hundred thousand Persians with 300 men and basically it’s become sort of the libertarian battle-cry. It’s a tribute to king Leonidas, let’s put it that way. But the rest of it is very similar to – I mean that’s what Sons Of Liberty is, it’s to light brushfires of liberty in the minds of the people, so any song that really makes somebody think heavily about stuff, that’s what Sons Of Liberty is.

Interview conducted on saturday 3th, 2011 by phone. .
Transcription : Stan.

Iced Earth’s website : www.icedearth.com
Sons Of Liberty’s website : www.sons-of-liberty.net



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