Jon Schaffer interview
February 22, 2000
by Steph Perry
Contrary to what we hear on radio and see on MTV, metal is alive and well. It may not be the latest trend, but bands like Iced Earth and Blind Guardian are still fighting the good fight. Iced Earth founding member Jon Schaffer recently teamed up with Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch to write and record an album under the name Demons & Wizards. The tone is heavy yet melodic. It is a fantastic cross-section of these two metal bands, but it definitely has a life of its own. The album is available from CD Now, as is Iced Earth’s most recent release, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Jon Schaffer called us from his home-base in Indiana to discuss Iced Earth and the Demons & Wizards project.
Was the writing and recording process for Demons & Wizards very different from your work with Iced Earth?
Definitely. In Iced Earth I write like 90 percent of the material – music, lyrics, vocal melodies, the whole deal. So it was different collaborating with somebody. As good of a friend that Hansi is, the great thing about our relationship is that we’ve been friends for like 10 years and we just discovered in ’97 that we can write songs together. So that was a pretty special thing. It just doesn’t happen very often between people. So it was very different. I just did the music and the basic arrangements, recorded them on an 8-track, and sent it over to Hansi a few songs at a time. He’d start working on the vocal melodies and came up with parts completely different from what I would, it was really a lot less stressful and it was really interesting to hear what his interpretation of my music would be, and what he’d add to it. So it was really great, we’re really happy. The thing is, this is just the beginning, it’s just the first one. There’s definitely more in store for the future. I’m anxious to see what it’s going to grow into.
What has the response to the record been like?
We haven’t really heard too much negative stuff. In three weeks, it sold over 80,000 copies in Europe. So it’s already beaten Iced Earth sales. It’s still in the German national charts so that means the sales are steady. We’re really happy with it. It’s really going well.
Do you have any plans to perform live?
In the States, it’s very doubtful right now. In June and July, we’ll be doing Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany and Japan. We’re working on lining it all up right now. I guess the best chance would be if I could get Blind Guardian to come over in support of an Iced Earth tour of the States in like 2001, when we both have new albums out. There may be a chance we could do a few Demons & Wizards songs, just for a goof. The other thing, too, if something happens and it takes off here and we do really well, the demand may be there for it. We just don’t know what’s going to happen in the States yet.
How do your perspective band members feel about your collaboration? It must be different for the members of both bands to have their two lead guys forming a band together.
Hansi said everybody is supportive of it on his side. They think it’s cool and they’re glad to have another record to listen to that they like and actually enjoy the music. With my guys, it’s kind of the same thing. This is my band; it’s my baby. I started it, I nurtured it, I kept it alive through all the bullshit over all the years. There’s no way I’m gonna jump ship! You know what I mean?! So they’re not worrying about that. They’ve thought, hey we’re gonna get a lot of exposure out of this, and it’s going to be a good thing for everybody. So everybody’s really cool about it. I think it will keep everybody on their toes too.
Any more info on Demons & Wizards that you’d like us to pass along?
I’d like everybody that’s familiar with Iced Earth to definitely check it out. The Guardians fans that they have here too, everybody should give it a fair listen…try not to let the Iced Earth/Blind Guardian end make you too opinionated. Don’t think with blinders on, go into it listening like you’re listening to a new thing because that’s what it is.
On to Iced Earth: Congratulations on the success of “Alive in Athens”.
Thanks. We went gold in Greece. That was our first gold album. But I’m not at all satisfied with where Iced Earth is. We have a long road ahead of us, and my hunger has not been put at ease.
You guys chose to do the show there because of the fans response?
The first time we went there was in ’97 for the Days of Purgatory tour. We went there and sold the place out. I knew right from when we went on stage. And from the fact that we got mobbed at the airport and getting into the venue, that there was something really special there between Iced Earth and this particular crowd. Although Germany’s been our number one market since the beginning, it’s just hard to explain, the overwhelming feeling that I got when we went on stage that night. I just decided right then, before we even got off stage, that when we do a live record, that’s where it’s gonna be. It felt like the time was right to do it.
You also have a big interest in art and graphics, is that true?
Yeah, the character that’s on Alive In Athens and Something Wicked is my creation, my character. He’s the main guy in the Something Wicked story that is just touched upon in the trilogy at the end of the album. We were gonna do a concept album based on the character and get into the whole story but we’ve had to put that on hold because it’s really not the right time. We’re getting ready to finish up our deal with Century Media and I think it’s got too much potential. I don’t want the people I’m in business with to drop the ball. That’s what I’m worried about. This thing really has the potential of going big. It will be a comic book, and that can always turn into other mediums, whether it’s animation or actually a movie, or whatever. There’s a lot of potential for the story. It’s really a science fiction horror story. I just don’t want them to fuck it up, and that’s what I’m worried about. They need to give me more of a commitment before I’m going to unleash this thing. The artists are already lined up to do the book. It’s not going to be a problem, I have enough friends in the comic industry to get it published. But, it doesn’t feel right, you know?
Right now we’re gonna hang back and just write an album based on songs and not necessarily a concept. The theme, however, it’ll have the same kind of artwork that Iced Earth has used on the last four or five albums. It most likely will be the same guys that did the Alive In Athens and the Demons & Wizards covers because I’m very happy with them, and they’re the ones who want to do the book also. The theme on the next Iced Earth album will be the classic monster theme. It has a lot to do with horror movies and horror stories and stuff. It’s something I’ve always been into. One of my ideas a few years ago was to do an EP based on the classic monsters, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, The Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, all these things. So now we’re gonna do a whole album based on that. There will probably be a couple other songs that don’t have anything to do with it. There may be a couple songs based on real-life horror stories like Jack the Ripper, or whatever, something like that. So I’m just starting to put all that together. It’s gonna be a really good record. The songs that I’ve got written so far I’m really happy with. It’s moving along…I’m sure it’s gonna be really heavy and really dark, with a lot of melody.
So you’re thinking about a year from now the album will be out?
No, I expect the album to be out by late summer. If all goes well.
Iced Earth is counted amongst other American-born bands like Savatage and Fates Warning that have stronger followings outside their native boarders. Any comments?
The whole American market versus the European market is just amazing…the difference of how it works. It’s a completely different animal. The reason why bands like us can have success over there is because we write the right material and we perform good live shows and we get good press. It’s a much more honest system. That’s why bands like us, that don’t have a shit load of money behind them, have success there. It’s all about cash over here.
Do you find that the atmosphere is different here, the kinds of music people are listening to, or is it just what we’re barraged with on the radio…isn’t really a metal or progressive type style. It seems like metal is alive and well in Europe, and you really have to dig deep here to hear about anything that’s new, you don’t hear it on the radio. It’s very sad because there’s a lot of great stuff out there and if you don’t learn about it on your own, through friends, or by going to a lot of shows, you’re gonna miss out.
That’s the point, this is a trend-based society, the United States is. You can’t blame the kids, like the Korn-heads and the kids that are into the Limp Bizkits because it’s all they know. They don’t even know bands like us exist. They don’t know what it’s like to hear heavy music with melody. I’m not just talking about vocal melody, I’m talking about guitar harmonies, all they have is somebody screaming into a microphone and a heavy guitar sound that sounds processed and sounds like shit anyway. They just don’t know what it’s like. And they won’t know unless a few bands can get out there and make a surge in the underground, or get big enough in one territory to make the major labels notice them and say, ‘okay let’s make a new trend now’. They could make it happen…it’s all about cash. If the big dogs wanted to bring melodic metal back as the new trend, they could do it.
I’ve had the attitude, ‘never say die’, ever since I left home when I was sixteen. It’s about dedication and it’s about pursuing your dream…Including Demons & Wizards I’ve got eight albums out and they’re all metal. There’s no compromise on any of them. There’s got to be a few bands that really help make a new wave happen. That means getting out and doing the shit work.
The only thing that could happen to make something change is if we were able to get a tour with, say, Iron Maiden or something, because whether the album’s good or not, they’re gonna be touring, and drawing at least 5,000 people a night in the States. If we were able to land a tour like that, that would drastically change everything. Suddenly all these people who like melodic metal would be aware of who Iced Earth is. We’ve been trying for years to get on to a bigger tour but it involves a record company spending a shit load of money for tour support, to pay for a buy-on to get on to a tour like Ozzfest or Kiss or Maiden. It all comes down to cash. We’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place but we’re going to get out of this, we’re going to move on. Our perseverance will pay off.
Would you pursue any movie soundtracks again, I know that with the Spawn thing it fell through for you guys, but if the time was right, is that something you would pursue to get more publicity and to get your music heard?
I would be into that, but it’s got to be on my terms. So when it goes back to that Spawn thing, they did that techno-crossover shit and I had a real problem with that. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to deal with the fuckin’ techno version of “I Died For You” or whatever. That would’ve been pretty much out of the question. I think it turned out for the better that we didn’t do it…But I’d love to be involved with some soundtrack stuff if it’s what I believe in. With the music, I can create atmospheres that go along with different stories, whether they’re my own or somebody else’s.
Have you visited any of your fan’s websites?
I have seen some and it’s really cool what the kids have done for us to spread the word.
When you guys play the States after the next album comes out, will you be able to make it to Connecticut? I know we’re a small state, but there’s a lot of metal heads in Connecticut, and I think you’d do really well here. Have you played here in the past?
No, we have never played Connecticut. We’ve played New York, Virginia, Philly and stuff, but we need to get up there. I think we can the next time. We’re gonna play Europe and South America and probably come back here and play some dates. I think that we’re gonna spend a very large part of 2001 in America. So we will get there. We’ll have to work our way there. That’s why we moved the band to Indiana, it’s where I’m from originally, but it’s close to where we’re growing — Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Now it’s starting to spread East and West. I’m sure we can make our way over there.
Is there any thing else you’d like us to share with our readers?
Check us out and see what you think! If you’re not familiar with the band, go to the site and download the samples. We’ve also got Demons & Wizards stuff up there to check out. We appreciate all the support as always.
Well it was great talking to you, take care.
Thanks for the support, Stephanie, take care.