Interview with Iced Earth
Jon Schaffer – Rhythm & Lead Guitar, Vocals
@ Belfast on 8th August 2012
Fashion trends may come and go, but Florida’s Iced Earth have remained steadfastly committed to championing the cause of heavy metal through thick & thin. After years of labouring in obscurity and undergoing countless line-up changes, they have slowly emerged as one of the greatest hopes for classic metal in America.
Originally formed as Purgatory by guitarist Jon Schaffer in 1985 the band spent five years in a constant state of flux while paying their dues on the Florida live circuit. They slowly honed their sound by combining 80,s thrash influences with the classic approach of Iron Maiden.
Since its inception Iced Earth has had numerous line-up changes with founder Jon Schaffer staying as the only constant member. As of 2012 there have been over twenty musicians in and out of the band since its 1985 formation. Currently composed of rhythm guitarist – Jon Schaffer, drummer – Brett Smedley, lead guitarist – Troy Seele, singer Stu Block and bassist Luke Appleton.
I was invited to chat to Jon Schaffer prior to Iced Earth,s debut show.
Good afternoon Jon and welcome to Belfast. I saw on the bands facebook page, a picture that you had have already sampled Irish hospitality at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin….how did you find that?
Jon: Well we get Guinness back home, so I have tasted before, it was great though to have it and try it out in its natural home in Dublin
Do you have any plans to record a new Demons&Wizards album with Hansi? (from Blind Guardian)
Jon: To do that we are going to need about a year of time, down from Iced Earth which I don’t want to take right now. We have a lot of momentum and I would rather focus on another Iced Earth album, and feed the fire that’s happening. After that maybe Hansi and I can do some Demons stuff, it will happen and we know there is a big demand for it.To do Demons properly then we need to tour because there is also a huge demand for that too, it will take a lot of time to write, record and also tour. I have a family and that’s very important to me also.
Your ‘Glorious Burden’ album was a concept based around a specific period in American history.
Do you have any plans to adopt this idea for another album release?
Jon: I don’t have any specific plans, but it will probably happen.
Is American History a particular personal passion-interest of yours?
Jon: I like the American Revolution and the Civil War period, they would be my favourite periods to study. I may do something with World War I or II, but I don’t plan that much ahead. When I get into my writing bubble, its when I really start to focus and I find what is inspiring me at that moment and take it from there.
How was the US tour recently with Volbeat? I was actually surprised that Iced Earth were in the support slot on that? Any particular highlights?
It was amazing. Volbeat are getting big and have had a couple of number one hits in America, they reached a completely different audience from Iced Earth. There may have been a time when they may have opened for us back when they first started touring America, they did several shows with Metallica!
How do you feel that your latest release ‘Dystopia’? It is different from other Iced Earth releases, obviously it features a different singer. Where you seeking to explore different themes?
Jon: Sure, it’s a different lyrical theme from what we have done in the past. Musically, I think its pretty much a ‘roots’ Iced Earth album. I wanted to get back to the roots because the last few albums were very theatrical, with lots of tracks. Thats the temptation of the digital age, when you have 130 tracks available, you start thinking ‘Yeah I can put this here and that there’,and it gets out of hand.
Ive read that one of your first influences was Kiss, are you still loyal to their particular brand, or did they lose you when Criss, and Frehley departed?
Jon: I don’t really care about that, it’s more that they were a big influence for me as a kid, I don’t even think that it was their music for me, it was more from a point of ‘wanting to do this!’.
I saw them in ‘79, my first concert, and I bought ‘Kiss Alive’ when it came out when I was seven years old. Musically my influences came more with Sabbath, Maiden, Priest and Deep Purple. Kiss was more for the show.They haven’t really written any great songs for a long time, I think ‘Psycho Circus’ was pretty cool, it had some good tracks on it .To me it doesn’t really matter if the original members are there or not, Kiss is kind of like an entity, in fact the guys that are playing now are probably much better musicians , and play tighter than the original band. I do understand regarding peoples attachment to the original line-up, but at the end of the day it’s all about the songs and if they move people emotionally, that’s the main thing.
I also read that you had an interest in art, drawing and painting, is that an hobby that you still pursue?
No, that basically stopped when I developed an interest in writing music. I still would do some basic sketches, to come up with a shirt or an album cover idea, nothing that is too detailed. Art isn’t like riding a bike, you really need to continue doing it to stay a good artist. I think that I could get it back very quickly though if I wanted to. It’s not really something that I am really interested in doing.
Do you have any interests – hobbies outside music that you actively pursue?
Jon: White water rafting, I like to ride motorcycles, I read a lot, study history. finance…
With so many line-up changes within the band over the years, do you feel that they were necessary to get to the point where Iced Earth is today?
Jon: Yes I think so, the reality is that I know what I’m doing, it hasn’t really mattered that much.
To the average fan it does count for something. The reality is that Iced Earth have been a successful mid-level band since the first album came out, and still are. I know what I’m doing, as it’s my vision. Anybody that contributes to that gets credit for it. It’s not easy to be a mid-level heavy metal band., and we don’t make the big bucks like the larger bands do.
The recent positive reviews and response to the latest release points though to a step up in success for the band?
Jon: I don’t know man, you can’t really compare now to the way it was ten years ago. The industry has changed drastically, everybodys sales are down and we have labels, distributors and retailers all going out of business all over the planet. The whole thing is changing, so to say ‘Are we more or less successful now, than we were then?’ You cant, its a completely different age and I have seen it change in the last twenty seven years, (22 as a signed act). I’ve seen a lot of shit come and go, it’s way harder for a band to make it these days, record labels are becoming more and more useless all the time. For the big muscle like Universal and companies like that, it’s something different. We are seeing indie labels fail all over the place, and they are becoming more irrelevant. I think that will be good for the artist, I hope so. My goal is to be completely independent, and in the next few years have our own label. We would be our own machine and not reliant on anybody else.
You touched briefly, on the fact that you have a family. How does that fit in with your 100% passion, drive and commitment to Iced Earth tours?
Jon: It’s difficult! The thing is that my family know that this is who I am, even my young daughter is very understanding. She misses me and I miss her, but she also knows that’s what dad does.
How has Luke integrated into the band (bassist Luke Appleton).Obviously you toured with his previous band Furyuk.
Jon: It’s been fantastic, when we toured together I was watching him closely (laughs). He was playing like a grown man and in a 3 piece you have to! I was really impressed with the way he worked with the drummer. I’ve worked with a lot of bass players over the years and have had to do a lot of teaching and coaching of bass players. I’m really looking forward to working with him in a production situation in the studio. I think he is going to come a long way. He’s already great and he has showed up ready to rock at rehearsals. I had given him 34-35 songs to learn in a very short period of time and he did it and came ready! He’s a great kid, comes from a great family.
It’s gelling really well, and he has also got some creative ideas. I think he will also be contributing in a writing capacity as well, if it fits the vision then it will be used!
Has your vision for the band changed since Iced Earth first started?
Jon: No, not at all.
We touched earlier on the increasing impact of technology. Your concept album illustrated a interest in sci-fi. Are you a fan of the genre re; movies, TV Series etc- If so, what are your particular favourites?
Jon: Do you mean the last 2 releases?
Jon: Not particularly. I like it, but Im not particularly a sci-fi geek. This is my own story, I do like Star Trek, Star Wars. I don’t necessarily mean that ‘geek’is a bad thing, but I’m more of a comic book fan. I know sci-fi nerds, like Jim my producer, as he will read so many books. Personally though, it’s not really my thing. I have more of an interest in history and horror.
You have another live album/video to be recorded in Cyprus. How will that compare with the bands previous live release which is still highly rated?
Jon: Yes it will cover most of the bands catalogue. Cyprus will be different they are more relaxed. We are going to make the best of whatever the situation is. It doesn’t matter if people compare it to ‘Live In Athens’, it’s not about topping that., as we have released a lot of material since that came out. The Cypriot crowd is going to be amazing, we played there last December, and it was incredible. It was absolutely electric; people were fucking insane when we hit the stage and that’s exactly what the live album is about; the fans! And it was them that made the ‘Live in Athens’ album what it is!
Thanks for giving us the chance to have a chat with you, ahead of your debut Belfast show..