Iced Earth: « We are family! »

Could we say that the ultimate friendship state is reached when aged 45 and 35, you end up jumping on a bed just like children? Indeed, it’s by apologising for the state of their hotel room bed on which they had apparently been jumping, that guitarist Jon Schaffer and singer Stu Block started our interview. This exercise, for that matter, was subsequently repeated at the end of our interview (see picture below). Listening to the two Iced Earth bandmates, there is no doubt to the fact that friendship is an essential component to the band’s success. They can’t stop laughing, are obviously on the same wavelength and admit missing each other only two days after coming home from a year and a half long tour together. For this reason, they don’t hesitate to describe the band as a family.

With that in mind, and despite their new album Plagues of Babylon being to our taste or not, what critics could we possibly address Iced Earth? A band which obviously does what it does, for the best possible reasons, being (other than making a living) their passion for music – the enthusiasm shown by the two musicians is really overwhelming – and the pleasure they take at spending time together, just like real friends. And as usual, it is for us a real pleasure to talk this through with them…

« If I don’t have a shoulder to cry on, or lean on, or laugh on, or puke on, then what do we got, man? »

Radio Metal: Dystopia was the first Iced Earth album cycle with Stu on lead vocals. So how was it? Were you surprised by the fact that Stu was so easily accepted by the fans?

Jon Schaffer (guitars): I don’t think I was really surprised.

Stu Block (vocals): I was really surprised! (laughs)

Jon: No, I knew this was the guy. Whatever we’ve gone through in the past, this guy belongs here. Obviously, there are fans that are not going to be happy. I’ve been hearing this shit since the first singer change. Believe it or not, people really liked his voice. He was a good frontman, he had charisma and he was cool, but it just wasn’t working, you know? At the end of the day, it’s like, whatever changes we went through, this is what it’s supposed to be, and it’s clear. Some people can’t get over the past, but whatever, they can listen to the old records. We’re moving forward. People see us live, they see the love, they see the brotherhood, they realize this is a fucking band, and it’s about time for that to be the case. So it’s cool.

Stu: I’m happy this all happened, I’m happy to be here. I’ve said it before, I’m working with my best friends, some of the most amazing fucking dudes. We create awesome music together, we get to see crazy parts of the world together, and we get to jump on beds together! (laughs) We get to do crazy stuff and play in front of amazing fans. It’s all good. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s amazing.

Last time, Jon, you said that, because of the state of the music industry, the band has to play live much more often. And this is what you did, playing many more concerts than you ever did in the past. So was it a conclusive strategy for the band?

Jon: Well, it’s also… Yes, it is a strategy. But it’s also having the right guys to do the job and wanting to do the job, to be here for the right reasons, and for us to take this to a level we’ve never been to. I hope that we can – and I think we can. It’s a different world than it was five or ten years ago. The industry itself is changing so much. But I think the awareness of Iced Earth is bigger than it ever has been. That doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars for the band, but it means a lot. We went to China for the first time, we played in Australia… We’ve been all over the fucking world! And we’re doing it again soon, it starts in January. We’re out here with Volbeat, which is a huge gift from Michael [Poulsen] to Iced Earth, because he’s a loyal fan and a loyal brother. Even if his agent and his management didn’t want us on this tour, he said: “I made the guy a promise” – he did, a few years ago, he said: “I wanna take you guys out”. He believes we should be as big as Metallica or Maiden. He bought the first album the day it came out, and he’s been a fan since then. He’s a real brother. For him to give us this opportunity… A lot of our fans were like: “What? What’s this?” But you gotta understand: this is a huge thing for us. We’re getting so much exposure! We’re doing an arena tour, starting in ten days. It’s big, these are big shows, opening for Volbeat. And they’ve been great. We’ve done Spain, the UK, France… This first part was the smaller part of the tour. We’re starting the next part in Berlin, 17,000 people. So it’s a big deal, and Michael is our friend. We’re brothers with the guys from Volbeat, and I think the fans see that. They see it happening, they feel it. I was just talking to their light guy the other night, about how the band HIM opened for them in the States, and their fans were actually fighting each other. It didn’t work, there wasn’t that chemistry. But the friendship between us and Volbeat has become somewhat legendary! (laughs) People realize it, they see how much fun we have together, and it’s a big deal. But yeah, touring more… I want this band to get the success that it deserves. The only way that we can do that is to play. We don’t have amazing finances behind us, we don’t have big money, we don’t have the connections. The only reason we’re on this tour is because Michael and I are brothers. He’s helping us.

A band like Twisted Sister actually have the opposite strategy: they assume that by touring less they’re increasing the demand, which allows them to play less for more money…

Twisted Sister peaked 20 years ago, so it’s a whole different thing. Their peak was Stay Hungry, which was actually more than 20 years ago. They already have their trademark, they’ve reached their fullest potential a long time ago. We haven’t reached our fullest potential yet. We’re still fighting to get there. But the songwriting partnership with Stu and I has grown, our friendship is strong, and that’s what really matters. We have more mountains to climb and more challenges ahead of us to get there. We’re gonna fucking take this thing to where it could have been, and we will do it ourselves, and we’ll be independent. You’ll see! We have plans!

The composition of Dystopia was started before Stu came into the band. So what difference did it make to have Stu in the band while composing Plagues Of Babylon? How was your working relationship this time?

It’s actually the same. There wasn’t that much writing that was done before you came in on Dystopia. There were a few files, and it was the same this time. I have to get the music and the arrangements together so he can listen to it, vibe on it, and work on vocal melodies and stuff. Then we just go from there. We basically used the same formula. I’ll be working in one room, and he’ll be working in another room, and then we get together and we try ideas out and brainstorm on shit. We record it, we make demos… It’s really the same.

Stu: On Dystopia, we were comfortable writing with each other, but I think it was even more comfortable for this album.

Jon: Yeah, now we’re settled in and we have 150 shows together! We’ve been through a lot of shit, we’ve done a lot of stuff together. We were literally on tour for a year and a half, something like that – most of the time. And I started missing him two days after! And it’s not normal! (laughs) You know what I mean? I don’t know, I don’t think it’s normal. I think we have a special thing with all our guys. We miss each other, we stay in touch with each other…

Stu: I’ve said that in other interviews today, but Jon always takes care of us. He treats us like we are family. We aren’t just these numbers on a sheet to him, you know? We’re human beings and we all really, really care for each other. We all have each other’s back, because we have to. If I don’t have a shoulder to cry on, or lean on, or laugh on, or puke on, then what do we got, man? We’re out there a lot of the year, it’s insane, and we need to lean on each other.

Jon: It’s family.

Stu: Yeah. Jon is always taking care of us like his own family. We all consider each other family. We take care of each other, but he makes sure that he always has time to talk about anything. We need that.

« Oh, we were so wasted on the beach one night… (laughs) […] And there was a storm, a big storm, like rain and thunder, and we were like: “FUCK! YOU!” »

Stu, when you joined the band, Jon told us that you didn’t even know that you had that kind of dynamic range, that the way you’re singing in Iced Earth was totally new to you. So, did touring intensively with the band help you feel more natural singing in the Iced Earth style?

Oh, yeah. Each show is a learning experience on how far I can push my vocals, where I can find tone or that kind of stuff. And the recording process, also.

Jon: That’s not actually true, he had a dynamic range. That’s why he was considered for the position. He was doing raging high and death metal stuff, but I wanted to explore the middle range of his voice.

Stu: I didn’t know I really had that. We explored that, and I toured with it. There’s a lot of challenging stuff in the back catalogue of Iced Earth. I mean, “Dante’s Inferno”, come on! That’s a challenging song to sing. Everything about it is challenging. So there are lots of songs that challenged me as a vocalist. “Ten Thousand Strong” is another one; oh my God, how am I going to do that?! I didn’t even know I could! The funny thing is, we discovered that when we were jamming it out. I was trying to do it lower, maybe I didn’t have the confidence and stuff. And then Jon just looks at me and says: “Dude, just fucking go for it! Just fucking do it!” All right, fuck it! And it happened, so it was really cool. So yeah, touring really helps, and I discover new things. I’m always discovering new things about myself.

Jon: I think we all are. If we’re not, then we might as well be dead!

Speaking of middle range, Jon had to coach you in order for you to use that part of your voice. How would you describe Jon as a partner and vocal coach?

Stu: I would say I’m fifty or a hundred times the singer I used to be. I’m so much better now with the control and stuff. Having him as a vocal coach, helping me in the studio – cause he’s worked with so many great singers… Why would I sit there and go: “Wow, no, you’re wrong!”? Why would I question him when I have a guy that has worked with some of the best singers in heavy metal? Come on! I’m a sponge, and I’m gonna listen and learn, and I’m gonna try and experiment with new things. I think the whole experimentation aspect really helped: “Try this, try that, and if it doesn’t work, we’ve got nothing to lose!” Then you discover things, then touring happens, and you learn how to tour. I think my voice has matured, even in the last three years, in the way I’ve been able to approach the vocals.

Jon: You did a killer job.

Stu: The thing is, Jon does it in such a way that you don’t feel it’s forced upon you. He does it in a way where it’s a brotherly thing. He puts the confidence in you. You know you already had it, but he plants that seed, and it grows.

There seems to be less high-pitched Judas Priest-like vocals in Plagues Of Babylon compared to Dystopia. Was it intentional?

It’s just the way the album went. I don’t think we have anything to prove in that department. I do that during the live shows, you know what I mean? There’s still some high-pitched stuff, but we don’t go into these songs thinking: “OK, we have to have that!” Yeah, we wanted to explore that type of vocals also, but I don’t think we have anything to prove. I don’t need to do that. I’ve been hearing that quite a bit. You’re gonna hear lots of that in the live show, and you can listen to Dystopia if you want to hear more of the high stuff. And who knows, maybe the next album will be tons of that stuff!

Jon: You never know, it’s what the songs call for. And we still do that. It’s not all over the place, and it’s mixed in a way where it’s not put in the front, but it’s there. I think it’s killer.

Stu: And there were albums previous to me where Iced Earth didn’t have tons of high-pitched stuff. It happens.

Jon: The songs dictate that. It’s all about the music telling you where you gotta go, sometimes from a lyrical standpoint, and certainly from a melodic standpoint. The song tells you what it needs. It’s not contrived. We just do what we do and hope people get it.

Stu: But live, there’s lot of that stuff. We’re gonna do a headline tour with lots of songs in there, lots of high-pitched vocals. You’ll get it. But I love what we all did on this new album. We all tried different things, which was really cool.

Jon: Yeah, I think there are a lot of new flavors in this record. And for a band with eleven albums out, I think that’s saying something!

 » I think in some way it’s a risk to open the album with a song like that, with the length and the whole theater of it. But we’ve got eleven albums out, so who gives a fuck, you know? What is a risk? »

Stu, I know that Jon doesn’t really want to have death metal growls in Iced Earth, except buried in the mix as arrangements. Aren’t you missing your more extreme vocal styles?

Stu: You know what, actually, it’s cool to do, but… I don’t know, I don’t really miss it. I’m doing so many cool new things now with my voice! I know I can do that, that shit is… whatever, you know? Death vocals, high vocals… I’m doing some really cool new stuff right now that I want to explore.

Jon: I’m telling you, if there’d been a video camera in the fucking studio when he did “Highwayman”, I was literally jumping up and down. It was so fucking killer! It was so beautiful, so special, and so… like, one take channeling the spirit of the song. It was there, it was so fucking killer. You guys have no idea! That’s how special the shit we do is. It’s really cool. We did a making of the CD, a documentary. But the guy was there for like two or three days, so you don’t capture it all. You get a little bit of a slice of it, but there were so many cool moments. I was like: “Ah! Yes!! That just happened!!!” So hearing Stu sing… There are so many people who can… [he imitates someone growling] What the fuck? He’s got a voice, let’s use it, man! Let’s fucking push that shit to the ultimate potential! Because it’s melody, it’s stuff that people relate to. He can do the death metal shit, but there’s a thousand other guys who can do that.

Stu: But if I miss it? Sure, but when we were on the bus, we were listening to death metal, and Michael and I were like… [he pretends to growl] But I’m doing so many cool new things now, it’s so exciting for me. And we did use that a little. At the end of “Plagues of Babylon”, I threw a little death vocals for a transition into the song, like the death vocals I did on “Dystopia”. There’s a cool flow there. You can hear it live, too.

The songs on the album have a more epic feel compared to Dystopia and are overall much longer. Was it your intention from the start, to go into the more epic side of Iced Earth?

Jon: No, once again, it just happened. For one thing, we were telling a story for the first six songs. “Plagues” is definitely an epic song, and I think in some way it’s a risk to open the album with a song like that, with the length and the whole theater of it. But we’ve got eleven albums out, so who gives a fuck, you know? What is a risk? So we’re gonna do what our guts tell us. When I was writing that one, putting the music together, I was like: “Man, I don’t know if it’s fast enough to be the opener, but listen to this intro! That’s the beginning of a record!” So it is what it is. But when you think about the theme of the story, the zombie apocalypse, within the Something Wicked universe, those first six songs are a kick in the ass. Overall, it has a very epic feeling, but I think the second half of the album is very epic also, in sort of another way. You have a lot of different flavors. You have a song like “Peacemaker”, which is a hard rock song. I think it’s certainly one of the coolest things we’ve ever done together, and it was sort of a happy accident. It may have not even become a song, had I not played the music to a few friends before Stu got there. They were getting goosebumps just listening to the music. I was like: “What’s happening?” I wasn’t even really sure it was right for Iced Earth. I played it for Stu, and he’s like: “Man, I’m getting this cool, Western vibe off of it”. So we started brainstorming on what the song is gonna be about, and found some fucking killer lyrics in the direction he went in, and great vocal melodies and attitude. The song’s got attitude, and it’s a very different thing for Iced Earth. Then you have “Chtulhu”, which is not so different for Iced Earth. It’s a typical kind of an Iced Earth song, it’s a special moment on the album. It’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. Then you have “Spirit of the Times”, and then you have “Highwayman”. This is a country song that we made into a metal song, and it has our best friends in the world on one record. We have Russell and Michael and Stu and I, and it’s like: “That’s the shit, man!” So it’s really cool.

In our last interview, you said you didn’t “have any desire to go any deeper into the Something Wicked story” – except you did, with the first six songs on Plagues Of Babylon. So what inspired you to dedicate no less than half of the record to this concept?

I don’t think I said I had no desire. Like right now, I can’t tell you what the next album’s gonna be. Our last interview was when Dystopia just came out, we’d just finished it. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. Was there a desire back then to write something about Something Wicked? No. But Stu is a big zombie fan, and big horror movie fan, and we were talking about doing a song. I started really thinking about it: “You know, we could take this idea of a zombie apocalypse to turn it into something pretty cool and really deep.” That would be a cool script for a movie, you know? There’s a lot of real-world shit there, which I think makes it scarier, actually. So we just decided to go down that road. You can’t stop story-telling in the Something Wicked universe. You can take any part of human history, or things that might happen, and put it in that framework of a story, and you have something really fun and cool to write about. But I don’t have any plans for the next record yet, I have no idea what’s gonna happen.

The album features a song called “Chtulhu”. The myth of Chtulhu is something a lot of metal bands have used as a theme for their songs, but what’s your own relationship with the work of H.P. Lovecraft?

Oh, we were so wasted on the beach one night… (laughs)

Stu: Basically, yeah! I got to Uruguay, and we partied for three days. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, so we needed to let out some steam. We were out on the beach at four or five in the morning, yelling at the sky, there was the ocean rolling…

Jon: And there was a storm, a big storm, like rain and thunder, and we were like: “FUCK! YOU!”

Stu: We were a bit freaking out, because we’re a bunch of primal pirate Vikings – we call it Virates, Viking pirates. (laughs) Jon had this piece of music, and I said: “I want to write a song about the ocean”. Then he kinda started brainstorming on it, and he was like: “Let’s write about Chtulhu rising from the ocean”. If you read the lyrics, I’m interested in what your take is on what I’m trying to say.

Jon: He wrote the lyrics, and it’s killer. Some of the best lyrics he’s ever written. He actually went online and read the book.

Stu: I read it, yeah. I hadn’t been totally familiar with it, and I loved it. It really inspired me to take it and put it in my own way. Now I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, man. He does a lot of mythology stuff, it’s really cool. I think it was a fun thing to write.

Jon: It’s the first song we worked on for this cycle. It’s a cool piece of music, and the chorus in one of my favorites of Iced Earth. It’s a beautiful sing-along thing. I like it!

« The most important thing is that the spirit’s right. Whatever language you speak, whatever country you live in, it doesn’t matter. »

Jon, I know that you’re often inspired by what happens in the world, by politics, etc. Since Dystopia came out, so much has happened, like the NSA scandal, Syria, etc. Did any of these subjects make their way into the album one way or another?

You’re gonna have to talk to my battery of attorneys! (laughs) It’s just, you know…

Stu: Read the lyrics! (laughs)

Jon: Read the lyrics and take what you want, but I’m not going down that way. You know what I mean? We’re fucked! Our countries are fucked, our governments are fucked, they’re criminals. It’s time for the people to wake up to it. That’s all I can say.

Jon, you’re American, Stu, you’re Canadian, Luke is English, and Raphael was born in Brazil and raised in Italy. It looks like Iced Earth has become a fully international band! How do you work as a band when you have musicians who have their roots from all over the world?

We all live around the world, but that doesn’t really matter. In the old days, in the beginning, we all lived in Tampa. That was where home base was, where we practiced four nights a week. Then I moved the band to Indiana, so we could start tackling America. I used the same strategy that Kiss did: starting in the Midwest, playing Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago on the week-ends, doing everything we could to spread to the coast. We made it happen, we made that work. At that point though, it became pretty clear that, as long as everybody keeps their chops up, we don’t need to live in the same place. We can go back to our roots. The goal was: “Let’s go to Indiana, let’s make this happen”. Once it did happen, we could live where we wanted. Then it was different States, and now it’s actually different countries. But it doesn’t matter. We get together and we rehearse, we practice before a tour. We get together for a month, or five or six weeks, whatever. Stu and I did very detailed demos in Uruguay, then the band got together and ran through the songs. We made some arrangement changes, added some parts, that kind of stuff. Then we went into the studio and recorded it. It doesn’t matter where we live, that doesn’t mean anything. The most important thing is that the spirit’s right. Whatever language you speak, whatever country you live in, it doesn’t matter.

As you mentioned earlier, Michael Poulsen from Volbeat and Russell Allen from Symphony X are both singing lead vocals on the closing song, “Highwayman”. How did that come about?

I’ve been wanting to do that for a few years now – about three years. We were fortunate enough that our schedules lined up to allow it to happen. Michael was going through a very difficult time in his life, he’d been working his ass off, it was crazy. But he took a day, got into a car, drove four hours to the studio, did his parts, drove back, and he’s proud to be involved. I’m really, really proud to have him. I wouldn’t want to do that song without any one of these guys. It doesn’t work. That song is about the lyrics, and about the vocals, and about the brotherhood. If you listen to the words, and if you understand who we are, the four of us as people, then you really get a look into our world. It’s about the brotherhood, you know? If Michael couldn’t have done it this time around, I wouldn’t have put the song out. No way. It’s the same with Russell and Stu. We all belong there, you know what I mean? It’s a special thing.

Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian also sang some backing vocals on several songs on the album. Did you take this opportunity to begin work on the next Demons And Wizards album, or at least start to schedule it?

No. No chance. I mean, it’s gonna happen someday, but it’s about time. I just don’t have enough time. My schedule’s like boom! And Hansi’s a busy guy, too. It will happen, but I don’t know when. This is gonna happen when it happens. I know people are waiting for it, it’s a very successful thing. We know that, but we have to do it for the right reasons. It’s not about money. It’s about friends who, after many years of being friends, discovered they could write songs together. We created a pretty cool Frankenstein thing between each other. But it’s gotta happen for the right reasons, and in the right way. I don’t want to squeeze it into a schedule just because we have to do it. It needs to be done right. It needs to be something really special.

The artwork for Plagues Of Babylon marks the end of a pretty long relationship with Nathan Perry and Felipe Machado Franco. What motivated you to change the graphic style and ask Eliran Kantor to do the artwork this time?

Well, it’s not like we ended a relationship with those guys. They’ll still probably do work for us in the future. Eliran contacted me through our management. He wanted to do an album cover for us. I looked at his style, and I was like: “Wow, it’s just really cool, but I need to see how you’re gonna do Set”. It was a big deal, because I already knew what the concept of the album cover and the theme were about. We already had the whole vision in place. He did like a headshot of Set, and I was like: “OK, this can work”. I wanted to take this to a new level, a different level. It’s a more realistic style; most of the old covers were in a comic-book kind of style, which I still love. Eliran is doing it digitally, but it looks like a painting, like oils, maybe pastels. It’s a really cool thing, and it brings a certain kind of… I think it’s evil shit! (laughs) It’s a very scary, dark cover, and I think this was the right record for that. Even with the really cool moments like “Highwayman” and our “Fuck you!” at the end, even with the fun part of what we do, there’s still some heavy messaging, real, heavy storylines, and beautiful, genuine human moments on the album. And I think this cover just fits.

Bonus, this picture we took with a mobile phone, showing these two buddies having fun like crazy, jumping on their hotel room bed:


Interview conducted on October 26th, 2013 by Saff
Questions and introduction: Spaceman
Translation and transcription: Saff

Album Plagues Of Babylon out since January, 6th, 2014 via Century Media Records

Iced Earth official website: www.icedearth.com

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