""Incorruptible" is gonna be a classic Iced Earth record"
How you came up with Jake Dreyer as the lead guitarist after Troy left? What did he bring to the table?
We did an audition and we had hundreds of participants from all over the world. We had a video/audio audition and we set a dropbox account. That’s really the typical process we went through listening to the stuff and determine who was interesting and we winded down to 6 people we were serious about. I did phone interviews with them a few times and I got down to the point were I got the best feeling about Jake, talked to him on the phone and he flew out here for the personal audition and that was it.
The album at that time was already written and arranged, so he just came in and did guitar solos on this record. But it was really late in the process, so I look forward for the next record where he can contribute with some songwriting, which would be great.
How easy or difficult is it to get into the zone when you’re writing new material? Is there any kind of ritual? Do you have a general solid idea in your mind or you just records ideas and work them later as the process continues?
It’s always starts with the theme title, even if it’s a working title; It doesn’t need to be the same, but sometimes we keep the working title. Maybe I change it a little bit, but it stays in the same direction. Every once in a while it will just be a riff that inspires me, but normally it’s about channeling the energy the right way and that is having a vision of what it is and trying to pick the landscapes of that song... If it’s gonna be a song I write as a tribute to the Native Americans or whatever the subject might be, I’m just trying to make the music sound that way. So even if it lacks vocal parts, it’s still telling a story. So that’s always the first. The final lyrics and the vocal melodies always come at the very end.
The last time we talked you seemed sure that producing an album was a job that you could carry out. Producing "Plagues Of Babylon" gave you the necessary confidence to continue being the producer of Iced Earth? Which is the trickiest thing about producing your own albums you think?
I’ve been involved in every production from the very beginning, so it’s not like this is new to me. I’ve been there for every single part that has ever been recorded, for every session of 27 years making records. So, this is not something new to me, but taking the full duties it’s something else. It’s really important to have good engineering. Good engineer is something else and not necessary if you are an engineer that means that you are a producer. Sometimes those two things get blurred.
"As a producer of your own band you have to inspire others and you have to bring them up to a point that maybe they’ll get frustrated. Sometimes you get great performances that way"
I mean, what’s the challenge of producing my own band? It’s always the same thing, to inspire the guys and get the best performance. There’s a lot of psychological work when you talk about producing albums. You have to push them really hard, but you don’t want to break them. You have to inspire them and you have to bring them up to a point that maybe they’ll get frustrated. They’re under pressure and sometimes you get great performances that way. It’s all about understanding the individual that you’re working with. Everybody is different and you have to understand people, you have to understand personalities and then, when you know what you’re dealing with, you can get the best performances out of them. That’s really the job. I mean beside the other stuff like scheduling, dealing with the budget and making sure that everything stays on time. It’s the creative part of it putting all things together, but getting the best performances is a big deal.
"People don’t see what I do every single day to make it work. They just talk and talk and talk, like they’re experts about everything"
But, there’s also the element of the outsider, if you know what I mean. Someone who could see things more clearly than you, because of the fact that you’re so into the album. Someone that could say "Jon I think that you’re not quite in the right path" and to guide you in a way...
Yeah, that could happen if you don’t have a clear vision. I can understand that. But that’s never been the issue with me. I have a very clear vision of what I want and where I’m going for. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years man and I can tell you that there are not that many artists that they really know what they want down to the details. And they need a guy like me to be able to do that and that’s where a producer really comes in to it to help the band clarify the vision. But, I have the vision. I base on that my whole career. It’s just a fact. I don’t really care if people get it or not. They are not here, they’re not part of the process, they don’t see what I do every single day to make it work. And they don’t need to, because people just talk and talk and talk, like they’re experts about everything. That’s cool because that’s human nature, but it doesn’t have anything to do with reality.
The most memorable and my personal favorite tune is "Clear The Way". I think it’s the best song you wrote since I don’t now... "The Glorious Burden" perhaps. It’s amazing. The crushing riff, the furious pace the whole atmosphere... I mean I felt like being in the battlefield at some point fighting for my life. How did you come up with this song and why did you decide to write lyrics about the battle of Fredericksburg?
It’s been in my head for a long time... The idea anyway of writing about the Irish brigade and to pay a kind of tribute to them. Because it was such a slaughter, it was absolutely a slaughter. It just felt that the time was right.
Sometimes I have an idea and it takes ten years before it comes to completion, but it’s always there at the back of my mind cooking. Then at some point it’s time to make it happen and for whatever reason this was the right time to do that song. But I do really feel that I was channeling the energy in there right way. I mean… I know there’s a lot of space on the song and even in the beginning I felt a couple of times early on that it was made a little bit too repetitive. But I talked to other people and I know it’s perfect just because you close your eyes and you can see dead bodies all over the battlefield. You can feel the tragedy.
"I don’t want to sound like an arrogant dick when I say "I had that vision", but I do have it and I put it together and I craft it."
This song has a lot of meditative parts, but then it has this really “kick you in the balls” heavy stuff and then it has an almost like a positive feel in the chorus, like a glorious triumph even though the story is not a triumph at all. It’s about going blind in the battle, with total belief and passion for what you believe in, knowing that you’re probably going to die. There are all these different emotions on it and in the break down after the big instrumental section, is really just a sort of a battle scene, where you can hear the guys fighting on the battlefield and you have that bagpipes playing the melodies. It’s all relative to the storytelling and I felt like, even before I got to the point of actually writing the lyrics and the vocal melody parts, that it was already setting the landscape of what I was picturing in my head whenever I think of those guys.
That’s what I mean man. I don’t want to sound like an arrogant dick when I say “I had that vision”, but I do have it and I put it together and I craft it. And when it’s time for songs like “Clear The Way”, even though the idea had been in my head for probably 15 years, when actually come to the point I see it and it happens and I go for it. There’s really nothing that can sway me from that. It is about getting into a certain motive of meditation where you allowing the energy of those souls out there in the universe somewhere. That story is coming into me, at least this is how I think it works. I don’t know. I never really understood why am I attracted to this kind of things and when it does hit me it hits me really hard, to the point it sometimes brings tears to my eyes. And during that creative process I can feel the energy coming through me and it comes out in music and then I know... I’m on the path. I’m on the right path.
"The story of the Irish brigade is a human story and it’s a very tragic one"
Would the Irish brigade guys from 1860’s be into heavy metal? Probably not…[laughs] But it’s all about energy man. It’s a transfer of energy in the stories and being able to pass that on to people of different eras, so that they can connect with the humanity of the whole thing. Because, the story of the Irish brigade is a human story and it’s a very tragic one.
"I have to deal with the culture that we’re in right now, where people have the attention span of an ant"
You don’t need to have any second thoughts about that song Jon, because the intro with the repeated themes builds so much tension that when the riff finally comes in, it hits you hard and you are blown away. It’s like the energy that was mounded before the Big Bang and suddenly... boom! In your face!
Yeah, exactly! I agree with you man and that’s why I left it that way. I also have to deal with the culture that we’re in right now where people have the attention span of an ant. So, that also makes it difficult to try and find the balance between “would someone appreciate this?” and “who gives a fuck if he’d appreciate it?”. This is what I’m feeling, this is honest. That’s a battle I have to think about. Would the people get it? Because, I’m trying to tell a story here. Of course there’re a lot of Iced Earth fans that they’re used to that thing, because this isn’t the first time we’ve done this. As younger fans come on, their attention span is less. I think it’s because of the culture where everybody is addicted to iphones and they want immediate everything right know. I think that all of us, the artists, we think about that stuff differently than we did it 15 years ago.
If we exclude some sort preludes in both "Framing Armageddon" and The "Crucible Of Man", "Ghost Dance" is your first proper/regular instrumental song sine "1776". How did you come up with the idea of an instrumental song about the Native Americans? When do you decide when a song is going to be an instrumental?
Well, it depends. “1776” was going to be an instrumental from the very beginning. With “Ghost Dance” it evolved a few times when I was thinking about taking it lyrically into some other directions, not away from Native Americans but from different points of view of the Native Americans story. It was first called “Trails Of Tears”. That was the working title. Then I was thinking about going into the battle of the Little Bighorn and about the defeat of Custer and the seventh Cavalry and all that and I was bouncing around different ideas very early on.
But then I got to the point where I was like “Man I don’t need to say anything” to make this tribute to the Native Americans. It’s says it all over the place just with the music and it spoke really loudly to me that that’s what I should do. I’m following my spirit and my instinct. There’s a lot of that meditative channeling energy on this record and I was really able to get into another place at the times when I needed to set the atmosphere. The Native American voices that you hear in the bridge were actually very haunting and very cool and the only thing that needed to happened vocally. And that’s actually a really Native American chant that was recorded in the late thirties. I found it out on the internet and I had to time stretch it and change the tuning a little bit and we had to do this to make it fit the flow of the part, but it still provides that really haunting atmosphere and it takes it to a whole other level. I really didn’t think that it was necessary to put lyrics. I think it’s quite obvious that it’s a very loving tribute to people that were so much betrayed.
I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that I’m getting older, but I have to admit that the mid pace, groovy and rhythmic songs of “Incorruptible” where the ones that I enjoyed the most. Let’s take for example "The Veil". It’s a simple but yet an amazing tune. Which are you favorite tracks so far and which was the vision you had about that album music-wise?
You know man, I just write whatever feels natural at the time. I don’t put a lot of concern into it… Of course, we want to have some typical Iced Earth’s rollercoaster rides, we want to have the fast parts, and we want to have the mid-tempo, the ballads and all. I’ve been doing that for most of my career, in terms of how the albums weighs out and is arranged, but I don’t really say “This album has to be 70% fast and 20% mid-tempo and 10% ballads”. It just goes with however the songs flow in a natural and honest way. And then I arrange them to flow also as a whole.
That becomes a little bit more challenging when you’re talking about a concept record, because then you really have to think about that flow earlier, because if you’re telling a story lyrically then the story needs to flow in a certain manner. This was just a natural thing man it just happened. The only decision was made early was that it wasn’t gonna be a theme record, it wasn’t gonna be a concept record because I had a lot of different ideas that I wanted to write about and Stu had ideas that he wanted to write lyrics about and none of them were related to each other. And I was cool about it and probably this was the first time since the first album that we didn’t have any songs related to each other in any level. So, in our regard it was kind of cool to be able just let it go and focus on every individual track and whatever the subject might be
Since I love too much the Gettysburg trilogy, "Valley Forge" and now the amazing "Clear The Way", I can’t help but think if a concept album about the American civil war could be a possibility in the future. It seem that this subject is highly motivates and inspires you.
Well here’s the thing. I wouldn’t rule anything out but I can’t say that it would happen you know. “Valley Forge” is about the revolution it’s not about the civil war and so is “Declaration Day”, so there’s a difference.
I get what you saying, but I don’t know man. It’s too early in the process to make any decisions about what’s gonna come in the future. It’s always got to be a natural process whenever songwriting starts. If it’s two years from now and we really start focusing on the next record then our lives are gonna change in that process. There’s gonna be a lot of things that will influence and had an effect on myself and on Stu and where we go with the next lyrical thing. It’s too early to decide. So I don’t know, but it’s possible I don’t think it’s likely but I wouldn’t rule it out. Who knows?
Has it never crossed your mind to do that kind of concept album at some point in your life?
No, it hasn’t. I haven’t really thought that idea of making a full concept album about the civil war. I have thought about the American Revolution, but even that was sort of a brief thought. I just think that it’s gonna be something that would appeal to everybody around the world. I understand that if the passion steers into me and it’s really strong, then it’s gonna translate to fans around the world, whether it has to do with their history or whatever, it doesn’t really matter, but still it’s one of those things that you have to think the entirety of the concept and the whole situation. I don’t know man. I don’t know what the future holds and I don’t really want to think about it right now [laughs]
"There’re s thing about Greek history that I’ve been really interested writing about. I had an amazing time going to King Fillip’s (Alexander’s The Great father) tomb north of Thessaloniki the last time we were there. It was one of the most powerful experiences I ever had."
You know, I’m kinda pushing you on that subject because when I heard the song and understood the lyrical concept I immediately went to learn about that battle. It’s kind of educative you know. Not only liking the song, but also get the chance to learn some things about the American history or whatever history you writing about. So, please don’t rule it out ok? [laughs]
No I won’t! There’re still so many things like the battle of Austerlitz at the Napoleonic wars, which is something that’s been dancing around my head for probably as long as “Clear The Way” and I even thought about it on this record, but it wasn’t its time yet. I trust my instincts on things like that “yeah it’s getting close, but not there yet”.
There’re also a thing about Greek history that I’ve been really interested writing about. I had an amazing time going to King Fillip’s, Alexander’s The Great father tomb north of Thessaloniki the last time we were there. Some friends took us there and it was amazing. It was one of the most powerful experiences I ever had. It was so unreal man. There was such a killer museum there and the feeling that I had t was incredible. So, I know that something down the line would come from that experience and it’s been interesting to me for a long time anyway.
There’re always things like that cooking, but it took me I guess 13-14 years after my best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident to write “Watching Over Me”, although the idea was there for a long time. It came to life when it was supposed to. So, it’s never about pushing or rushing. It’s about letting it flow.
"I have some other plans for "Something Wicked" outside Iced Earth to take it further and into another direction. But that’s a whole other project."
And what about the "Something Wicked" Saga? Has Set abandoned us or we will live to see him again in the future?
That’s something that I also can’t say man. “Incorruptible” is probably the last album cover with Set, but that depends on whatever I feel at the time. I can really say “I don’t plan on doing anymore of the Something Wicked story with Iced Earth”. That doesn’t mean it won’t happened, but I don’t have any plans at the moment. Let’ say that I have some other plans for “Something Wicked” outside Iced Earth to take it further and into another direction. But that’s a whole other project. I can’t say with 100% certainty that’s gonna go one way or the other.
"When I heard "Ride The Lightning" for the first time I was like "oh man what the fuck""
I always thought that Iced Earth balances perfectly the aggressive riffs of Metallica with the melodies of Iron Maiden. When you first started, which was your vision about the music you wanted to play and how different you came to be after all these years?
Those influences started when I was really young. By the time I heard Metallica I was already pretty much on my way to solidify my style as a rhythm guitar player. When I heard “Ride The Lightning” for the first time I was like “oh man what the fuck”, because I was already playing fast and playing heavy, and tight picking and my influences were coming from Steve Harris, from a bass player even though I was a guitar player. That galloping kind of things on a guitar instead of a bass.
So, I mean it was somehow already set, but I think that the thing is that the guys in Metallica and me we’re not so far apart in age and we all grew up listening to the same stuff. So you hear is the influences of the old wave of British heavy metal and the new wave of British heavy metal it’s in there.
"Those were the traps that you fall into, because you want to challenge yourself, you wanna keep things fresh, you have all this technology and you want to use it."
The music changed of course but it’s been a natural progression. You know, “Incorruptible is the 12th Iced Earth studio album. That’s a lot of records. You see a grow, you see a going into different places. In the beginning it was all about the riffs and the typical young man approach of things and then you see that the songwriting really starts to develop and we start focusing on lyrical content that is more dramatic and that brings in love stories and something that takes it to another level.
And then you have let’s say the “Dark Saga” period where I really started focusing on writing big vocal melodies and choruses and stuff like that. That even started in “Burnt Offerings”, with “Last December”, which was probably the first song that stepped to that direction.
And then you get into the “Glorious Burden” period where everything is really epic and the orchestra comes in. And then “Framing Armageddon” and “Crucible Of Man” with all of the world instruments and the crazy arrangements and going overboard probably on the production.
Those were the traps that you fall into, because you want to challenge yourself, you wanna keep things fresh, you have all this technology and you want to use it. And then you realize you’re somehow drifting off course because you overthinking things a little bit, so we come back with an album like “Dystopia” which is a “kick in the balls” Iced Earth, more stripped down, simplified heavy metal record.
So, I mean, the whole thing happened but it all happened very naturally. I have been friends with guys that have been doing this as long as we have and we all have fallen into this [laughs]. It’s all the same journey, because everybody in a career like this goes through a similar progression and you want to take it farther and farther and sometimes you miss the mark and you have to get back to your roots, but you do that honestly, at least I’m doing it. I follow my path and I think that it’s been a killer catalogue. We have left our mark man.
""Incorruptible" is gonna be a classic Iced Earth record. There’s no question in my mind after seeing the reaction from fans and people freaking out on this record."
This is a question that always wanted to ask you. Among the Iced Earth fans it is a common ground that “Burnt Offerings” is if not the best, one of your greatest efforts. It’s angry, it’s heavy, it’s dark... It’s very difficult for me to understand why you are not very fond of that piece of music perfection.
It’s just really about the classic records, the biggest records, the ones that the fans are really into... ”Burnt Offerings” have a cult following for sure. The thing about the record is the circumstances around it because there was a lot negative energy. Those kind of records -and there are few- they never really have the same impact and it brings back memories that aren’t good. From the brutal situation with the contract that I was stuck in with Century Media at the time, to the point of Jim Morris’ wife being killed in a car accident in the middle of the production.
There’re a lot of things that went on and they don’t bring up funny memories. And we have a big catalogue, so why should we’ve being dueling to something like that? I’m not saying that we’re never gonna do that songs again. We played “Dante’s Inferno” on our giant world tour. And we may bring up some of the other stuff as times comes on, but the band’s moving forward and we have 12 records out and we have to try and find a balance to our playing stuff from the catalogue that appeals to all the people. We just can’t do them all.
When we did “Dante’s Inferno” on the “Dystopia” world tour we devoted almost 17 minutes of our set to the pinnacle song from “Burnt Offerings”. But that takes a lot of our time. And since then we had two more studio records come out. So, you see the challenge. And now “Incorruptible” it’s gonna be a classic Iced Earth record. There’s no question in my mind after seeing the reaction from fans and people freaking out on this record. So we’re gonna been playing a lot of this album in the future. We’ll see dude...