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Interviews Iced Earth

Interview with guitarist Jon Schaffer

Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

Date online: December 21, 2013

Live pictures + pic of Jon Schaffer by Luxi Lahtinen

Floridian powerhouse Iced Earth are preparing to release their 11th studio album worldwide, via Century Media Records. Plagues of Babylon, set to drop on January 6th 2014, and is the band's second album featuring Stu Block (ex-Into Eternity) on vocals, the singer who showed the Metal world his phenomenal skills on Iced Earth's previous record, Dystopia. Iced Earth has been on the road almost constantly since Dystopia, actively crisscrossing the world and expanding the band's fan base. Currently, Iced Earth are touring in Europe, opening up for Denmark's hard rocking wild bunch, Volbeat.

On the 28th of November the tour reached Helsinki, Finland and The Metal Crypt was there to hook up with Iced Earth founder Jon Schaffer and ask him about the ongoing tour, the band's new album and the use of guest vocalists and how he keeps the wheels rolling from one year to the next. Read on...

Luxi: First off, welcome to Finland, Jon!

Jon: Thank you.

Luxi: When you were here last time, two years ago, you played at this festival in Joensuu, Finland called Ilosaarirock. Can you remember any of it?

Jon: No (*laughs*)

Luxi: Basically, they have a very wide audience there because they invite not only Metal bands but also Rock and Pop acts. But I know you've been touring quite a bit so I'm sure it is hard to remember every show you have done...

Jon: It's really hard to keep track of everything, man.

Luxi: Iced Earth has been supporting Denmark's Volbeat for several dates on their European tour. Has this been a good fit for you, supporting a band that comes from a very different world, musically, compared to Iced Earth?

Jon: I don't think it's as different as everybody thinks. There's a lot of heavy stuff in Volbeat's catalog. Michael (Volbeat vocalist/guitarist – ed.) was very influenced by Iced Earth. He bought the first album the day it came out and has been a dedicated fan ever since. He actually helped us with the set list we'll be playing on the world tour starting in January 2014. When you have 11 albums, it is really hard to pick which songs you are going to play. But we have a blast; Michael is one of my closest friends in the world. There is a lot of respect, loyalty and love between the bands and the crews. It is a gift from Michael to be taking us on this tour. Iced Earth is reaching a whole different fan base and making new Iced Earth fans.

Luxi: Do you believe this tour has brought you some new Iced Earth fans?

Jon: Yeah, lots of people had never heard us before and, at first, they don't know what to think but by the end their hands are in the air. It is really showing up in our web traffic.

Luxi: After this tour, you start your own headlining tour in January 2014, crisscrossing around Europe nearly two months. You have so many dates booked and I was wondering how you prepare yourself for touring? Once you are out on the road you are there for a long time. It must be mentally and physically tough.

Jon: Totally. This is not an easy life and it is definitely not for the squeamish. You have to be a warrior and have a warrior spirit. But it is what we choose to do and we aren't complaining. That said, I think 99% of the planet couldn't do it because it is so demanding and there's so little sleep. Sometimes we party too much but we do our jobs and everyone is in to it.

Luxi: ...and it gets tougher as you get older, including partying hard, heh!

Jon: Sure.

Luxi: Your new album is due out on Century Media in early January 2014. What can you tell us about the album and what the fans can expect from it?

Jon: I'm really happy with the record. It is a very strong album with great songs and different emotions, which is pretty typical Iced Earth. This is the first album I produced myself. I was looking for a heavier, almost live sound - and I think we achieved that.

Luxi: I have heard the album already and I think it sounds awesome. The title track pretty much sets the tone and in my opinion you chose the best song to open the album.

Jon: It was a bit of a risk to open the album with an almost 8-minute track. Because of the theme and the story of the first six songs, it needed to be there and it is obviously and intro. When I wrote it, I thought "this has to be the opening," but I was a little apprehensive because it isn't a fast song. That's OK, though. "Burning Times" isn't a fast song either and we've had others that aren't that fast, like "Dark Saga".

Luxi: One of heaviest numbers on this new Iced Earth record is a song called "The Culling." It starts with this very heavy, dark and creeping guitar riff and the song just kicks off from there. What more can you tell us about this particular track?

Jon: That is a dark song. It is about the culling of humanity and is what happens when they set the plague in motion. It kills most of the planet and most of the people. I love the chorus, it's cool.

Luxi: Speaking of choruses, many of your songs have a big chorus that is easy for the fans to sing along with, like "The End." Is the chorus important for Iced Earth, not only to get the fans involved but to set the band "on fire"?

Jon: "The End" is a good one. That was one of the best things about Stu coming on board. We can both write strong melodies and choruses and shit. It's great to have a partner who can come up with great ideas.

Luxi: You have enlisted some guest vocalists on this new record; Michael Poulsen (Volbeat), Russen Allen (Symphony X/Adrenaline Mob) and Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian). Where did the idea come to use so many well-known singers?

Jon: Well, we recorded in Germany for the first time because we had festivals all through the summer and I didn't want to fly back and forth to the states on the weekends. I did that on Dystopia and it was brutal with constant jet lag. As for Hansi, that's a no-brainer. Whenever I'm in Germany, I have to get together with my brother Hansi. He offered to do some vocals and it was great. He helped us out because we were strangers in a strange land in Germany. He found us some other singers for the chorus, which I can do if I'm back in the states, but not in Germany. And I love his voice. I can totally hear him in the chorus. As for the other guys, I've wanted to do "Highwayman" for years. It's one of my favorite songs of all time with fucking killer lyrics; a real masterpiece. It's a country song that we "heavied" up and made our own. I asked Michael about it a few years ago and he said sure, if we can get the schedules lined up. Russell (Allen, Symphony X vocalist – ed.) was in and Stu was there and it is just the four of us singing. This album has some of my best friends, not just in music, but best friends, period. That's the highlight of the record for me.

Luxi: Do you think you'll ask some of those guys to join you on stage for some of your festival dates, if there was a real opportunity for that kind of thing?

Jon: Man, that would be cool! And we've been asked that, but I would only do it if the four of us were there. It could happen, but our schedules would need to line up.

Luxi: Who is mainly responsible for the vocal arrangements on the new record?

Jon: Stu and I both, but Stu is really involved with his vocal parts, more so than any other singer before him. But I'm the chief songwriter, so everything goes by me first. When we are in the writing and demo process, sometimes we work together and other times we work by ourselves. I'll start putting arrangements together and he'll be in another room working on lyrics or vocal melodies, then he comes in and we put it all together.

Luxi: How challenging was it to put this album together?

Jon: For me, it was really long days, because I was producing, so like 14 or 15-hour days. The cool thing was that the guys were all there. We had housing at the studio in Germany. It allowed me to not work Stu's voice too hard and schedule the other guys in at different times to give him a break. But it was still challenging. I worked with four different engineers and there were some technical challenges, but it came out great in the end. I actually have a plan for the way I want to record the next album and it includes using analog tape, which I miss. There's a new system out called The Clasp, which marries analog and digital in a way that hasn't been available before. There's only about 12 or 15 of these systems around the world so maybe we'll use Lenny Kravitz' studio, we'll see.

Luxi: Speaking of challenges, how do you keep things interesting for yourself after all the years you have been doing Iced Earth, with even more years to come?

Jon: There's a lot of pressure, man. Every record takes its toll. You have to constantly push yourself. You have to stay realistic and not buy in to the illusions that are created around the band. We have to stay down to earth and grounded, which is just one of my jobs in the band. If someone's head starts to get too big, I'll bring 'em right back to reality pretty quick (*laughs*).

Luxi: This new Iced Earth album also has a couple of new faces in the Iced Earth line-up; Luke Appleton on bass and Raphael Saini on drums, who replaced Freddie and Brent. How well have they fit in to the line-up of the band and what have they bought into Iced Earth?

Jon: Actually, Raph's not in the band anymore. He just came in temporarily to help us out. John Dette is playing on the arena leg of the tour and will play on the world tour. He's a great drummer and everyone is getting along. We'll see how it works out. Luke is great. He's been in the band for a long time and his playing is some of the best, maybe THE best, ever on an Iced Earth record. He came up with great melodic parts and executed flawlessly.

Luxi: How did you come up with the idea for the limited edition 3-song 12-inch EP, called The Plagues, which you are selling exclusively on this tour?

Jon: We just wanted to have something exclusive for the tour. We may have some extras for the world tour but that will be Iced Earth fans and they'll go fast. One thing we did was have no limiting on the vinyl master so it is incredibly dynamic. My manager got the test pressings for the full album and he's a big vinyl fan and says it's unbelievable. I've struggled with the "loudness wars." If you make your album too loud, you lose the dynamics. It becomes just a brick wall of audio. The industry is starting to change. Spotify is working on a way to end that and people are starting to discover dynamic music again.

Luxi: Next year is going to be very busy for you. You have many dates already booked for your world tour, with Sabaton and ReVamp in support. How familiar are you with these bands?

Jon: The ReVamp thing is new and I've checked out some of their YouTube stuff. The Sabaton guys are cool and I've seen them a couple of times. We played at their festival in Sweden and they were great to us, so I think we'll get along great.

Luxi: ReVamp is Floor Jansen's band and she's also in Nightwish. She has pretty big things going on right now, I think..

Jon: Is this the first album for ReVamp?

Luxi: To be honest with you, I am not so sure. They are just starting to make a name for themselves, especially with the Nightwish connection, you know? You should have some pretty cool touring mates, anyway. How long does the tour last?

Jon: We're booked until August, including dates that haven't been officially announced yet.

Luxi: After this tour, will Iced Earth be seen at some festivals during the summer of 2014?

Jon: Sure, we're doing Wacken for sure. We've confirmed some others.

Luxi: I think that was all I had in my mind, so thank you for your time and all the best for tonight's show.

Jon: Thanks to you, too.

Other information about Iced Earth on this site
Review: Horror Show
Review: Horror Show
Review: Horror Show
Review: Alive In Athens
Review: Alive In Athens
Review: Horror Show tour (Montreal)
Review: Horror Show Tour (St. Paul, MN)
Review: Tribute to the Gods
Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Review: The Glorious Burden
Review: The Crucible of Man
Review: The Glorious Burden
Review: The Dark Saga
Review: The Crucible of Man
Review: Night Of The Stormrider
Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Review: Alive in Athens
Review: Overture of the Wicked
Review: Framing Armageddon
Review: Framing Armageddon
Review: Burnt Offerings
Review: Dystopia
Review: Plagues of Babylon
Review: Incorruptible
Review: Enter the Realm (2019 reissue)

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