Iced Earth recently released the "Live In Ancient Kourion" CD/DVD, they've announced a new album that's coming and a new world tour, so we can't argue with Jon Schaffer as he explains to us why this one of the best times in the band's career so far. The reasons behind the success of "Dystopia", the crucial role of Stu Block and the problems of recording a live DVD are discussed among other interesting things as Jon send his message to the fans of the band.
Let's start with you giving us some details about your new live CD/DVD “Live In Ancient Kourion”.
It was the promoter in Cyprus who sent me the pictures of the theater. He knew that we wanted to do a proper Iced Earth headline show DVD, because I have told him that at some time, somewhere in the world, during the “Dystopia” world tour, we were going to shoot the DVD. So, a few months later, he sent me an e-mail with the pictures of the theater saying that this theater had to be the place and I felt it right because it is such an amazing, cool looking spot with all this ancient history. That was it.
How you choose the proper setlist for the 'proper Iced Earth live DVD', like you said earlier?
We were playing a lot of different songs on the world tour, so it was based on two things. One, based on fans’ reaction and two to change it somehow from the last DVD “Festivals Of The Wicked”, were we kind of have the same set in the three shows. We also wanted to dig a few songs from our back catalogue which we hadn’t played for a long time, which was hard to do for the first decade of 2000, because we weren't actually touring a lot due to my health problems with my back and my neck. Then, Matt came back to the band after we made "Crucible Of Man" so we could only do very limited touring, because of his career and basically we played the same setlist all the time. So, I wanted to get away from that a little bit.
Watching the DVD -and listening to the CD of course- one thing that made me curious about was the almost perfect sound. Are you not afraid that this might affect the “live sensation” of this album?
Well, I don't really think that it's sound perfect at all (laughs). There are plenty of mistakes in there and from the audio stand point I don't really see the point of putting out that sounds really shitty (laughs). It really doesn’t make sense to me why to do that, if you have the ability to make it sound better. One thing that people don't really understand is how it works when you play into a place, like Cyprus. You rely on... You'll get a drum set that you've got no idea in what condition it is, you don't know the speaker cabinets, you don't know if the speakers are any good, if they've been abused, the amplifier tubes how many hours have been played and if they sound like shit...these kind of things. So there are a lot of things we do, so we are prepared for the worst case scenario. One of those thing is getting a direct signal to record the guitars in order to have the option of re-amping them. Basically, it is the same performance, but you are getting a better tone and I think that tools are there so you can make the recording sound better. You are not changing the performance or the mistakes. For me, the biggest disappointment is that the audience is not sounding as powerful as when we were there. The reason for that is that we only had two microphones for the audience, which is not enough because it’s an open air place. So, we had mics at the front house console and in front of the stage. It would have been better if we had microphones placed throughout the audience and get the whole size of the crowd. There wasn't enough security or microphones and the guys won’t place the mics stand in the middle of the audience and leave it there. The p.a. company wasn't ok with doing that. I could say that for me it was so powerful there in some moments standing upon the stage and listening to the crowd. You can't really feel that like we did during the show.
So, apart from that thing with the crowd, can you say that you are satisfied with the result?
Yeah. We learned a lot of things about in the process. It was supposed to be better with getting some HD cameras, which we didn't and that was a disappointment. The camera crew didn't follow the directions of the director...you know "this is where you need to focus on", and sometimes they did, but sometimes they didn't, so they missed some scenes that have been cool. For example, Luke is doing that cool bass solo in the beginning of "Dracula", but you don't see that because the camera wasn't there. That kind of staff is very frustrating, because was things that we want. But it was a lesson and next time we know how things must go. But, overall, we are very happy with the DVD.
And comparing it with "Alive In Athens"?
Well...it's really hard to compare. It's such a different... everything is different... This is more a live record from "Alive In Athens", with a lot more fixes to do. The audience was recorded great on "Alive In Athens". It was an indoors place in "Rodon Club" and the audience was very powerful. You can't compare these two recordings, but I think they are both cool. Obviously, the "Alive In Athens" DVD I think is shit. It was never meant to be released on that format. We recorded it as a live album and then Century Media decided on 2006 to put some shitty footage together to make the DVD. I never approved on that and I was very disappointed, but I understand the people who liked it. It was a very historical time of the band but I think of that more us a bootleg.
You mentioned Luke before, your new bass player. Is he going to be a permanent member of the band?
Yes...as long as he want to be here. He is doing a great job and he plays really well. I mean...in this album you hear the bass, because he is playing as a bass player has to play in Iced Earth. He comes up with some pretty cool ideas, so he may help in the writing process of our next album. For Luke, it is a dream come true being in Iced Earth, so I expect him to be around for quite a while.
I had the chance to talk with Stu before your last live appearances in Athens. He seemed to be a really nice and down to earth guy. How is working with him and what is the element you think he has bring to Iced Earth?
It's great working with Stu. He's a lot of fun to hang out with, he is always very positive, hard worker, always ready to go and giving 100% all the time. He brings a lot of cool things in the table. He brings the ability for me to have a writing partner who can attribute with some very cool vocal melodies. I guess the most important thing is our friendship. The chemistry from an artistic stand point of view is obviously very important, but when this caring over to a more personal thing and being friends and having this chemistry in a personal level...that is that makes it more special. We have a great time, Stu makes me laugh. We hit it up great and he fits with Iced Earth great. I'm very glad we found him.
And what do you think are the main differences between him and Matt and Tim?
All these three guys are very different personalities, with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can't really compare. I guess the thing with Stu is that he can do so much different things with his voice... And the other guys can as well, don't get me wrong... Matt and Tim can make great things with their voices. What I mean is that Stu can go from that death metal kind of shit to the Rob Halford kind of highs and everything in between and it's very cool. He is developing his middle range and that's the area of his voice I've being really working on and pushing him in the songwriting process. That's kind the part of his voice that he never worked with and nobody pushed him to use before the "Dystopia" album and he is really excited about it too, because he is discovering all the things that he can do and he is just getting better all the time.
The "Dystopia" album was a mind blast and for me personally your best work after "Something Wicked This Way Comes". Why you think you came up with such an album? Was it because of Stu? Was it because of not trying to another concept album?
I think that if Matt had stayed the album would have been as that strong. I mean, of course, it would had turned up a little different, but it would have been strong with all these energy behind the band. That happened because of the Sons Of Liberty thing. That's when my prospective changed and I really started wondering what's going on and maybe kind made me fall in love with Iced Earth again and get very positive about the band. Of course, there are a lot of different things. Now, we have a new manager with whom we work for about four years now. We have a lot more positive energy and a strong core and Stu definitely had played a major role in that. I guess his optimism and his love for the band made me feel proud and more focused too. I don't know...I think I just got back in focused again. When I made "Framing Armageddon" and "Crucible Of Man" I had lost three of my family members who died in a period of one year, during the writing process. So, that was a very difficult period for me and I think that this shows. I mean I like "Framing..." much more than "Crucible..." which have a couple of great songs but overall when I listen to it I can tell that I was not very focused at the time and not have made the right arrangements decisions. I think it's perfectly human... I was going through a very difficult time. It seems that with "Dystopia" everything gets back on track. This is all I can say.
The new album is called "Plagues Of Babylon" what you can say about the music you have already compose and about the lyrics?
I'm not going to say anything about the lyrics yet. I mean we have the titles and approximately have all of the lyrics finished, the theme of the songs and everything, so you can guess where the thing is going by the titles of the songs. The music it's ...really heavy and dark. It has some very cool choruses that have a sort of sadness into but are addictively melodic. It's really hard to put it in words ...it's very Iced Earth and it's heavy. It's not a concept album but six or seven songs are going to be related with a specific theme and the rest of the songs are going to be individual tracks.
Is the "Something Wicked” saga continued in your new album?
It does apply to that. That's the cool thing about the Something Wicked universe...it can apply almost to everything, but that's all I can say now.
Are you going to work again with Jim Morris?
I think in the mixing process yes, but in the production stand point I think that I'm going to produce the album. We are going to record it in Germany between the festival days this summer and I'll fly to Florida in the end for the mixing which we'll do with Jim.
I think that you will produce an album of Iced Earth for the first time...
Well I don't know for sure, yet. I’ll maybe bring in some guy to co-produce with me. I'm sure that Jim could not be able to stay in Europe the whole summer. We can’t afford it financially. The last time with "Dystopia" I had to travel back and forth from Europe to U.S. to do the record and it was a pain in the ass. I was in a constant jetlag and I don't want to that again (laughs). I prefer to do the festivals and fly to Berlin and work all the week. I know that I'm capable to do the production, I have already worked in that part with other bands. It's just that when it comes to Iced Earth I'd like to have that outside opinion by someone I trust and that's why I liked all these years to have Jim on board.
The chapter of Demons & Wizards has closed or perhaps we’ll see you again working with Hansi in the future?
Definitely, we are going to do something in the future. The problem is the time. Iced Earth has so much momentum going and I can't take a year off. We have such a dedicated group of really great guys and crew and it will be unfair to Stu and all the guys from me to just walk away from the band for a year, which is how will it take to do a proper Demons & Wizard album...writing it, recording it and do some touring for it... We are talking here for about a year. I don' see that happening TOO soon, but maybe after our next album we will see. At some point, we are going to need some kind of a break, because of how hard we are touring and working. Of course, it has to do and with Hansi's schedule as well.
So tell me about the "Dystopia World Tour". Was it successful?
It was very successful. It was a blast. We had a really great time and we were able to play in so many new markets round the world. We were blown away as we had the opportunity to play for the first time in countries like Russia, China and Australia. We played in a lot new places in North and South America and Eastern Europe. We played a lot of shows man and our next tour is going to be even bigger.
Yeah... I see you have already announced tour dates for 2014. Don't you think that perhaps you should need to rest for some time before you hit the road again?
No rest for the wicked brother (laughs). We are on the attack. The time is now. I can tell our fan base is fired up and it's a global thing. We creating new markets around the world and it's exciting to visit all these new places. Like I said, there's no time to rest for us. We need I say about one maybe two more album cycle and then we can take a break.
What do you think you have accomplish all these years with Iced Earth and what is giving you strength to keep going all those years?
I think that we make music that touches people and helps them to get through difficult times. I hear that from the fans a lot and I can see what our music means to the and that's what always makes me proud and feel rely good about what I do and what this band has accomplished. I guess that's it for me man...to know that I help people.
In your opinion which is your best album and which is the most critical for your career?
Oh man I can't choose one...it's like everybody says...there are like my children I can't pick one (laughs). All of them were made with a lot of love and effort and I really can't tell. For the most critical now...there were some different periods. So, let’s say that the first one was “Night Of The Stormrider” with which we take off internationally and then you have probably “The Dark Saga” which exposed us more and especially things started to happened in U.S. with that record and also “The Glorious Burden” was a big step for us.
As usual...last words for you Jon.
The Greek fans know how much they mean to this band. I really feel for what your country is going through and the suffering going on there it is terrible. I heard that the same thing happened in Cyprus...basically it’s everywhere. It’s just different stages of the meltdown and collapse. I hope the people will rise up and put those criminals of the government and the banks in fucking jail. They fucked up my country and they fucked up all the countries. It’s time for good people to rise up. I feel for your people my friend and I hope you weather the storm.
Thank you very much for your time Jon, take care.
You too brother.