Icing on the Cake
CoC speaks with Iced Earth
by: Drew Snow
Of all the bands that have been around for more than just a few years, Iced Earth is probably one of the most respected, and definitely commands one of the most loyal fan base. It's not difficult to understand why, with rhythm guitarist's and band backbone Jon Schaffer's pummeling riffage, and Matthew Barlow's full-throated vocals providing the core of Iced Earth's driving, unique sound. Whether the band is laying out a sixteen-minute orchestral epic like the timeless "Dante's Inferno", or just kicking into one of countless unforgettable riffs, you definitely can not mistake Iced Earth for any other band. With the release of _Days of Purgatory_, the band has put forth a 74-minute slice of material from the band's first two albums (the import double-CD has material off the third, as well), with remastered production, new vocals, and in some cases entirely re-recorded drum and guitar tracks. If you thought you liked the band's early material, then _DoP_ will open your ears to what it should have been all along. If, however, you have never heard Iced Earth, then you have no idea what an excellent band you are missing, and _DoP_ is your perfect recap. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to Jon Schaffer on CoC's behalf.

CoC: Why didn't Century Media (the band's label) release the double- CD here in the US like they did in Europe?

Jon: I guess they felt that the manufacturing costs were too high compared to the amount of record sales that they would get. I wasn't happy about it, either, because I know that we do have a pretty loyal following of American fans. What they are doing is they're selling the double-CD mail-order from Century Media direct for twenty bucks, which is a pretty fucking good deal for an import of that magnitude, because it's two digi-packs. It's an expensive thing to make, and overseas we sell five times what we sell here, so they can afford to do that.

CoC: Do you think that around the first release, _Iced Earth_, the band was overshadowed by the wave of death metal coming from Florida, like Deicide, Obituary, etc.?

Jon: It had a little bit of an effect on us, as far as not being taken seriously by the independent labels, because everyone was on that bandwagon, the death metal thing. But you know, we were around before that shit ever became. We were playing out here in 1986, out in Tampa. We played with Savatage and Nasty Savage, Siren, Obliveon; there was a good metal scene here in Tampa. We were called Purgatory at that time. But when we changed our name to Iced Earth is when that whole thing started to happen with death metal, and you know, yeah, it was tough, but we never thought twice about what we were doing. A lot of bands changed to death metal so they could try to get a record deal and we never did that because we've always been what we're about, and we've always stayed true to what we believe in, that's it. It did kind of hurt people's opinion of us, by not taking us seriously, but in turn, where are -they- now? The guys who started the death metal wave are still around, but the rest of the people who jumped on the bandwagon fell apart. We're still here.

CoC: Besides the short four-date tour late this summer, do you think you'll ever have the opportunity for a full US tour?

Jon: Well, we would like to do that, but it's really hard for a band to pick up and make that happen. There have to be the right strings pulled, we have to have the right company to make the tour happen for us. We want to get out and play, but we can't go out and headline America by ourselves. We are going to do these four shows out in the mid-west. But as far as doing a full US tour, we have to be support for someone that's going to draw people, and that in turn costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time to get that worked out. I'm not sure our record company is capable of doing the things to make Iced Earth known in the States. I mean, they're trying, and they're doing a much better job than the old days, but is it good enough to make Iced Earth big? I don't know. The States is a tough market.

CoC: Do you think the new "retro-80s" thrash trend will help the band along at all?

Jon: I don't know, man. I doubt it. To be honest with you, I think the only people that are going to help Iced Earth is Iced Earth. If we get the right management team or record company behind us, the sky's the limit. Right now, I don't see any help coming from anybody, we never have. It's all been basically on our own. Century Media's done a good job in certain parts of the world, and I'm not ragging on them, but there're just some things that they aren't capable of in this country, yet. And even though it's a night and day difference between what it used to be, when it used to -really- suck here in the States, the new staff is doing much better, and our record sales each time we've put out a record have doubled, even though they're very small numbers. I think if we get up into the mid-west and start playing some shows up there, we're going to be able to build upon our fan base and really bring metal back to the US. That's what we're hoping for. If once we start playing up there, we'll just keep building and get more and more shows all the time, then we're doing a good thing.

CoC: What's your inspiration for your riffs? What do you think about when you're writing them? To me, they're some of the best I've ever heard.

Jon: Well, first off, thanks for saying that, but I think Steve Harris writes the best riffs ever. <laughs> I don't know, man, I think it's just the inner rage that helps with that. I've always had a problem with people trying to tell me what to do, and I was very much a rebel, a "rebellious teenager" still, in many ways. I have a lot of deep inner feelings about life and death, and it all seems to be in a direction. I know a lot of it comes from my past, my childhood, and it just comes out, I don't know where it comes from. I don't know if anybody, any writer or any true artist, could tell you where it comes from. I think it's as much of a mystery to us as it is to the people looking at you and wondering. It's just kind of a way of channeling your emotions. Whether you're on a piano, or a guitar, or if you're a singer, it's all what's inside of -you-.

CoC: You always seem to have one really epic song on each album, like "Dante's Inferno" from _Burnt Offerings_ and "Travel in Stygian" from _Night of the Stormrider. Do you regard these with any special feeling?

Jon: Yeah, those are special songs to me. They're usually my babies that I work on for a long period of time by myself. I don't usually show them to anybody until I'm done with them. They're always kind of my pet project, I always like to put one at the end of each record as a little special closer. You know, I'm working on one for the next album, and no one's heard any of it yet. I don't know how long it's going to be, but it's probably going to be longer than anything else on the album, to give it that finale kind of feel to it. I just want to make it kind of a trademark thing that we do; something cool and epic at the end of a record to close it out nicely.

CoC: You're producing an album soon for a band called Silent Scream. What can you tell us about that?

Jon: Oh, you heard about that? Yeah, they're just a young band from Hamburg, Germany who approached us when we played there, and they asked me. I said I'd see if I liked the music and I'd get in touch with them. I get handed CDs from bands all the time, and I felt like these guys had some potential. They've got some good music; the vocalist needs work, he's my biggest concern right now. But he seems like a nice guy, and he's taken the advice I've given him. He's working hard, at least they're telling me he is, he's taking lessons and stuff. So when they get over here in September we'll see how it goes. I'm excited about it because I've never produced anyone except Iced Earth and I've wanted to do that kind of thing, so for me it's a chance to get into another field of the music industry that I really love doing. I like to take a song, and put my magic touch to it. I like to work with bands who are respectful, anxious to learn, and want to get into this business. I also like to let them know what a nightmare they're in for, too. <laughs> At least if I can tell people some of the things I've been through, then I can help ease the pain of this career choice a little bit, and try to give them a bit of advice, because I didn't have any. I went through a lot of bullshit, the hard way.

CoC: What do you do besides music? A day job or anything?

Jon: Well, I haven't worked for about a year now, the band's finally doing well enough to where I can make a very meager living. I'm also sort of the micro-manager of the band, and I can't work right now, there's just not enough hours in the week to do the things I need to do for the band. Being the writer, the manager of the band, and also play on tour, to get -ready- to play on tour, it's really a lot of work, so I'm not working currently. I mean, I do have a friend who has a music store, he sells guitars and comic books, and I work for him once in a while when he needs help. I used to work there full-time. Basically, in my spare time, and it's very rare that I -do- have spare time, I like building model kits. Monsters and comic book characters, I build these things and hand-paint them, so that's a hobby. I collect comics and toys, and there's a little escape from the music world. But other than that, I spend a lot of hours on the phone, a lot of hours with my guitar, though not as many hours with my guitar as I would like to, because I do more business than I probably should. But at this stage of the game, I don't really have a choice.

CoC: What musical training have you had? Any lessons, or self-taught?

Jon: I'm self-taught, but I took my first guitar lesson last weekend. So I'm going to continue to do that. I think I've reached a point in my playing where I need to learn, because there are some things that I don't know. I've never taken the guitar as an instrument very seriously, I've always treated it as a tool to write songs with. Now I want to know why I'm doing the things I'm doing, just to learn the way it works, because I don't know. Which is strange; I can hear everything in my head, I know the way it should be, but I don't know -why- they are that way. I never learned a scale in my life, and leads I never really cared about, but now I'm going to learn some, just so I have that extra bit of knowledge. Maybe I'll start playing a little lead on our albums to give a different feel; Randy [Shawver] always has kind of a dark, abstract feel to it, and the few solos that I've done in the history of the band have been more of a melodic, kind of bluesey kind of thing. If we mix the two together, it might be an interesting addition to the band's sound. But I am a -rhythm- guy. Steve Harris is my idol, I love killer bass and drums, and rhythm guitar. That's what I'm into. To me, that's the thundering backbone of a band.

CoC: For the next album, do you think you'll continue in the same vein as _The Dark Saga_, or will you go back to the faster riffing of the earlier albums. Where do you see the music heading?

Jon: Oh, we just do whatever comes naturally. I don't like to say "Well we're going to make it sound this way." I just let the songs come out of me, that's the way I've done it for every album. However they come out of me, that's the way it's going to be. So far, their's a pretty good mixture of everything. Their's some really fast shit, their's some really slow stuff, some in between. There's one song called "The Prophecy" which is very Maiden-ish but much more heavy and much more intense, but it's got that feel to it. There's one that's kind of like a Slayer/Metallica kind of thing. I mean, it doesn't -sound- like that, I'm just trying to give you a genre that you can attach it to. The epic thing that I'm working on is an Egyptian vibe, it's going to have some very fast and furious riffing, and some slow stuff, too. It's just Iced Earth. It's going to be like all the other stuff but different than the album before it. But you're going to know who it is when you hear it.

CoC: When do you think that'll see light of day?

Jon: It probably won't be out until next year. The way it looks, we may possibly be going out on tour with Savatage and Rage in October and November. That's Europe, and if that happens, it's going to be forty dates. We'll be hitting territories in Europe we've never played, so it's worth putting off the release of the next record, because we have to take that opportunity to get into Spain and Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Finland, some areas that we haven't been into before; if we can get into those areas, we have to make that happen.

CoC: Why do you think bands in the same general style as Iced Earth are so rare in the United States? I mean, they're fairly common over in Europe, but when the US is concerned they are sparse.

Jon: It's a difference in culture. You know, over here, people here are basically fed the popular trends and what they're supposed to be involved in by the media. They're fed a certain way to think by radio, or MTV, or by regular television, everything from what kind of clothing is popular, to what kind of hair styles, or music, and over there it's not like that. I mean, over here I've seen it happen dozens of times, whether it's bands that were playing metal and jumped on the death metal bandwagon, and then jump on the goth bandwagon, and then the industrial bandwagon, anything they can do to try and get a record deal. There're very few people in the business that are loyal enough to stick to what they're all about, long enough to make it. It takes a special breed of people who are willing to tough it out and do something in which they believe. That's maybe one or two people out of ten, and when it comes to bands, Iced Earth is one of those one out of ten that is willing to play what we believe in and what we're about, no matter -what- it takes, until whatever time. If it becomes popular, we'll still be doing it even after it becomes -not- popular anymore in this country, just like Iron Maiden is still doing. I'm not one of those people who feels like I have to bow down and kiss anybody's ass, I never have and I never will. I'm not trying to be arrogant or conceited, but I have confidence and faith in what we do, but this is the kind of attitude that's kept this thing alive for twelve years and that's going to keep it alive for another twelve years. You know, we're not going to bow down and change for -anybody-. We're going to do what we do because we want to do it, and that's it. And there's just not enough people around who are willing to do that.

CoC: What vein is your side project with Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian going to be in? The same speed metal style as Iced Earth?

Jon: Yep. It's going to be my music and his words. It should be a cool mixture. We wrote our first song when I was over at his house, and we went to his little studio and recorded it, just with the drum machine and stuff, but it sounded really cool. It's really fucking dark. We don't even know what we're going to call it yet. We were talking about touring Europe again with [Blind Guardian] in the spring of next year, and then I'd stay over at his house and we'd finish writing it. Then we'd come back here, I was going to get Mark Prator to play drums on it, that's the guy who played on _The Dark Saga_, and get Jim Morris, the other producer for the band to do the lead guitar stuff, and then me, I'll get bass and guitar, and Hansi'll do the vocals. I'm excited about it because it'll have my kind of music and Hansi's choruses, it should be a very interesting mixture.

CoC: Well Jon, that wraps it up. Any final words to Iced Earth's fans who'll be reading the zine?

Jon: Just tell them to check out the website (http://www.icedearth.com), and stay true because we're going to.

(article submitted 12/8/1997)


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