In honor of Jon Schaffer’s birthday, below is an interview that I conducted few months ago with Jon, as he was getting ready to go to Germany to rehearse for the World Dystopia tour which would bring them through Europe, North America and visiting places they had never played before on the path to Iced Earth World Domination. We spoke about the new album and the recording process with new singer Stu Block! Here’s Part 1 of Jon’s interview.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to HearEvil.com about all the exciting things going on with Iced Earth. First, let’s talk about the new album Dystopia. While it’s not a concept album can you tell me about the themes behind it?
JS: Well it’s loosely based on, not actually very loosely on, some of the songs are directly based on movies. There’s a couple of songs that are from my own Something Wicked story cause it certainly fits that theme, but the idea is that of dystopian future, which I think we’re headed for actually in reality so it seems to be a (pause) it works in a way that I think on a more subconscious level. I hope it will make people think and kind of get their wheels turning a little bit. There is some real live stuff on there including Stu (Block) writing End of Innocence about his mom’s suffering from cancer. There are different songs on the album, it’s not all about that, but the majority of it is. That was just the idea that we came up with to kinda tie in artwork and also be able for me to get a message across that doesn’t come off as preachy, but hopefully will make people think. I did a solo album called Sons of Liberty that is very much a square kick in the face and it’s very clear what it’s about. There are some of those issues on Dystopia for sure in a more veiled way that I think people will respond to it. It’s not all negative, I told Stu that when we were doing this, we can’t have this be all negative, all dark, we gotta put songs on there that inspire hope so I think in Anthem, Ironwill, Tragedy and Triumph they’re songs that have lyrics that are more empowering.
Have you heard different viewpoints and perceptions regarding the topics Iced Earth writes about other than empowerment?
JS: Well some people would look at a song like Brainwashed and think it’s totally fucking evil in actuality you gotta really look at it, it’s not.
Isn’t that what metal is all about though?
JS: No I don’t think metal is about evil, I think it’s about rebellion, rebelling against injustice, against the systems that are in place around us. I think it’s exposing things. Alot of metal bands are just mirrors of society and so I don’t know that it’s evil….I think that‘s kind of …whatever. But people….if you show a Christian, not a real Christian, but a cookie cutter type of Christian the lyrics to Brainwashed, they’re going to think it’s evil. My stuff is always about making you think and trying to motivate people. It’s always been there from the first album till now. People can say whatever they want. I don’t really care what people think, I do, what I do, I’m motivated by life as a song writer not by people’s opinions, trends, labels or management or anybody else.
How does Set Abominae fit into the Dystopia album this time around?
JS: Well because there is so much to say and since Something Wicked (where we see the appearance of Set Abominae) is completely a dystopian future story, I decided since the new album is based on this theme that it would be cool to take a couple of slivers out of the timeline of the story, which lyrically Dystopia and Tragedy and Triumph deal with. There is so much to the Something Wicked story that literally I can write songs about it forever and if I feel inspired to do that I will. It made sense from having a really bad ass cover that is very much in true, traditional Iced Earth style, but then has the message I want to get across with this record so it all works together.
In the past you’ve mentioned a comic book and novel set around Set Abominae. Any update on those projects?
JS: It’s on the backburner. Once I really started researching what it was going to take to make all that happen, I realized I did not have the time. So as long as I’m an active touring musician and recording artist, which that’s a small sliver of what I do with Iced Earth. I wish that a lot of times, believe me especially now getting ready for this tour, I wish all I did was play guitar and show up, but it’s work. It’s a lot of work everyday with administrative stuff: approving all the ads, designing the merchandise and everything behind the scenes that people have no clue about, stuff that my manager and I are constantly dealing with, so my art tends to go on the backburner a lot of the time. So you know there is no way doing what I do at this point, especially as busy as the band is going to be, as far as the eye can see right now, I see it more that kind of a thing being done when I retire from music or when things slow way down.
Do you feel the internet has added a whole new layer of work that you need to do on a daily basis?
JS: I don’t really mess with any that stuff, I have a publicist that deals with that kind of stuff so I don’t really concern myself with that very much, that’s not something I have to worry about time wise. When it comes to statements or press releases, I have discussions with my managers and my publicist and they take it from there. I don’t post on Facebook, I do it for Sons of Liberty since it’s an activist thing, a grassroots movement that’s going on, but I don’t have a personal Facebook page, once in awhile I’ll look at the Iced Earth page but I don’t really have the time to engage in that type of stuff. Like I said if I only played guitar in the band, awesome! (laughs) I would have all kinds of time but my role goes a little deeper than that.
This is your first album with singer Stu Block from Into Eternity. How did Stu become a part of the Iced Earth family?
JS: It really wasn’t like that. The CEO of Century Media, when I told him what was going on with Matt (Barlow) he recommended Stu to me. Stu had also had an ad out that I had also seen after Robert (Century Media, CEO) told me, looking for work in like 2009. Robert also played me a few Into Eternity videos when we were together and I was really impressed with the look in Stu’s eyes and it was obvious that he had a big range. My biggest question was first of all I’m not hearing any middle range vocal tones there, I’m sure he has them but he’s not using them and so I needed to see: can we build something in that area cause that’s where mostly my songs lie? Although we have many different colors in Iced Earth, the majority of the music lies in the middle range, so that was one thing. Secondly and most importantly even more important than can he sing the old material, but what type of chemistry do we have together? So we got in touch with Stu and I talked to him about these things. He did a couple of demos for me where the recording quality was not very good since he doesn‘t have a real studio. I said I needed to get him into the studio behind a real microphone and a good compressor on his voice and sit there. It’s important for the attitude of the singer: will he do the things I’m asking him to do? Can I produce him? Is he going to be trusting me? There is a lot of chemistry involved when you’re producing vocalists and you have to be able to communicate; it’s a big deal, egos can’t get in the way of trying things, especially when you’re really opening up somebody and trying to get the most potential out of them, as we’ve done with every singer we’ve had. Stu was awesome at the audition, it was amazing, his attitude and he was blown away by the way I was talking to him and I saw his eyes lighting up, he was so into it and discovering these new sounds in his voice and everything and really that’s what sealed it for me. In the first couple of hours we had written End of Innocence together. We tried a couple older Iced Earth songs and then Dark City was the second song, it had a working title of Deceiver at that time and it was completely nonsense lyrics stuff thrown together, but just to experiment: What‘s the chemistry like? How are we going to work together? It was killer. We had been talking to some other singers, two, one Swedish, one American, but once I heard Stu’s audition I told my manager, no point in looking any further man.
Didn’t Into Eternity open up for Iced Earth on a few of the shows on one of your previous tours?
JS: They were on tour with us for like 10 or 12 shows, I think, but honestly I was so busy, I didn’t even really pay attention. I heard Stu warming up backstage and I think I made a comment like “wow that dude has a hell of a range“, a comment like that, but I didn’t really pay attention to the band live. When you’re doing press, you’re like in your own world and they weren’t on a full blown tour. They were on a regional leg of it. I didn’t really get the opportunity but after talking to Robert and looking the videos, I’m impressed with the band. They’re really good.
So how was the whole recording process with him?
JS: It was killer. When you got somebody with that attitude matched with that skill set, there’s really nothing you can’t achieve and that’s what’s so cool about it. The attitude is a huge thing, the willingness to want to do this, to want to try everything, to push yourself as far as you can possibly go and just open to it. It’s a very similar thing to between Stu and Matt as Stu also took drama in high school. He was in the drama class he was into the acting and stuff. Matt was into that and that makes it easy for me to convey what it is I’m looking for a production standpoint, so the attitude, the ability, it was great. We just had an awesome time working together
How many songs did Stu contribute to?
JS: He contributed to like 10 out of 12 songs. He came to my place, my studio in Indiana and actually, we wrote the stuff together. We wrote a lot of lyrics and vocal melodies together. A few songs he did on his own, a few I did on my own but we were in the same room, he was on one side of the room working on headphones and working on lyrics, while I was working on musical arrangements on the other side of the room. But he’s got a lot to say he’s a smart guy, he’s got a great attitude he’s fun as fuck to hang out with. He makes me laugh. I love the kid.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next Thursday!
In the meantime, take a trip over to Iced Earth’s official webpage to read the updates and tales from the road!