MUSIC INTERVIEW | Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth: The politics behind the music

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Before Iced Earth took stage Tuesday night on June 26, when the curl of fans had just lined up at the Myth’s doors, I sat down with Jon Schaffer in the back of Iced Earth’s bus and talked music and the politics he used as motivation for Dystopia and his overt solo effort, Sons of Liberty. Jon and I see some of the same crooked symptoms of corporatism, but from there diverge in our analysis of causes, Keynes, and the role of government due to—I think—a disagreement about realities of positive and negative liberty. Regardless, I think the interview shows a man who gives a shit about people and his craft. 

So, the tour. How’s it going?
It’s definitely and honor for me [to be opening for Volbeat] because I love Michael [Volbeat] as a person, friend, and a brother, and I love his band. I haven’t been excited about a band since I was a kid. And Volbeat stirs that same excitement in me, because it’s so many cool different kinds of music coming together to create what they have. So it’s great and it’s good for us. You know [Michael] bought our first album the day it came out 22 years ago as a kid. He’s been a fan of Iced Earth for a long time and it’s an honor to know I’ve had an influence on him as a young guy and starting his band. It’s really cool and we have a great relationship and a lot of mutual respect. So we’re having fun out here. And for Iced Earth, we’re reaching a whole different audience. I don’t think everyone’s going to be into what we do, but a lot of people are—you can tell people are. Between Volbeat’s and Hellyeah’s audiences we’re expanding the awareness of Iced Earth.

I discovered you guys in 2004 when Glorious Burden came out. I was a DJ at my college radio station and I was a punk kid and the only metal band I knew was Motorhead. But you all blew my mind. From the gallop of the double base drum at the beginning of “Declaration Day.” That slow build into the album. It really caught me ear. So what do you expect Iced Earth’s appeal will be—what do you hope it will be—to tonight’s crowd, who wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to you?
Well I think Volbeat appeals to a lot of metalheads. They have punk rock, rock and roll.

The Misfits sound, the Social Distortion sound.
Everything. They got so many elements in there, so I think the elements of their fan base that are metal heads will appreciate Iced Earth. And at the end of the day it’s all about the songs, right? Like if people come in and they don’t really know anything about the band it might be “Watching Over Me” that’s going to be the song that really clicks. Maybe their more into the pop part or the rock part of Volbeat. Or maybe they’re really hardcore and “Pure Evil” is going to be the song. We try to give a pretty broad view of what Iced Earth is sonically. We got 40 minutes so we can’t do a lot of the epic stuff, but it still has an epic feel. We’re seeing we’re converting people. Michael’s [Volbeat] really helping us out. Iced Earth needed to open up for other bands. The biggest problem we’ve faced is we’ve always been preaching to the choir. We’ve opened for three bands before Volbeat in a 27-year history and been putting albums out for 22 years. And it’s small markets. We did the tour with Blind Guardian and the UK with Heaven and Hell and they have a good fan base over there. We did nine or ten shows with Megadeth before Dave broke them up. It was the B-leg of their tour when he was having problems with his hands and stuff. And it just wasn’t going well for him at that time. And that’s it besides this. Iced Earth’s always been preaching to the choir and always has had this dedicated fan base, but to expand that we have to open for other bands. And there’s so much politics when it comes to doing tours. It’s either this agent owes that agent a favor or there’s a management link there, but in this case it was just Michael and I are really good friends. He loves Iced Earth and he’s honored to have us out and we’re honored to be here. Because I’m really proud of him and where they’re taking—it’s just so hard to find someone in today’s world who’s able to take all these influences and make something fresh that excites the people. I think Volbeat’s going to get huge. They have the potential to just explode. They’ve already taken over, they already own Europe, and I think the same thing’s going to happen here. I think it’s going to happen everywhere. They’re on the right path. And it’s really cool.

You mentioned how you have to bring together some set list to give a broad range of Iced Earth, which I can imagine must be difficult—you have all these epic albums, you have so many songs that aren’t stand alone songs like other bands—they have these huge thematic elements. You’re doing the new live album in August, right?
Correct.

So using that as context how do you pull together a live experience for a crowd? What kind of thought goes in to create the live experience?
Well, we really consider what out of the catalog can we do that is going to appeal to Volbeat fans because it’s their tour. Obviously no “Dante’s Inferno” in a 40-minute set. So we try to pick songs that are short and to the point. And we’re promoting the new album. We’re still touring Dystopia, so we’re doing three songs from Dystopia and that’s the album that’s the most represented. Because we’re making new fans we felt like we need to focus on that one more. But I think we’ve represented most of the, well, probably half the albums in the catalog. It’s more to show the different colors of Iced Earth. We’re doing “Declaration Day.” We’re doing “Pure Evil.” Which is really more thrash kind of, more speed metal oriented than our other stuff than we’re doing in the set. We got a couple ballads. We got the title track “Iced Earth.” It just seems to be a good mix of the emotions Iced Earth can deliver. It’s not all of them, but it’s some of the colors of the band. And we’ve seen it work. Like I’m saying you can see on their faces that they don’t know who we are, a lot of them. We just toured the States and there are still diehard Iced Earth fans that are coming out, but I think a lot of them know, “I’m only going to get to see them for 40 minutes and I’m not into these other bands.” So of them are and some aren’t, but “they were just here.” So for us we’re trying to cater to that we’re playing in front of Volbeat’s audience. So let’s try to give them some tastes from the history of the band that are quick and to the point and that will make them feel holy-shit-I-just-got-my-ass-kicked.

I’ve heard you describe and I’ve seen some reviewers say “Iced Earth is back” or this is “the return of Iced Earth.” But I’ve never heard you go into more detail about that. What do you mean by this being “the return of Iced Earth?” Is it just that it’s been three years since the last album or do you see Dystopia as having thematic elements that hark back to an earlier period of Iced Earth?
Yeah, it’s a new album, so obviously we’re back, but I think it’s the spirit of Iced Earth is back. I mean it does reside in me, being the driving force of the band. And the last 10 years have been really difficult. We’ve had a lot of line up changes, issues with management and label kind of stuff. We changed labels to a new label and then that label when into bankruptcy, which was really sad because there were a lot of great people there. So there was turmoil I’d say from the Horror Show period on up through the last studio album Crucible of Man, and I just feel that for me personally, when I’m on point that’s when things work and when [I’m] not they don’t work as well. I started the band. I’ve been the guy for 27 years now. I’m in tune with myself enough to know, and I look back at past periods, at the up swings and down swings, where my head was at. Even in the writing of Framing Armageddon and Crucible of Man I lost three of my family members in one year. It was really hard to focus on and be completely in writing mode and I think Crucible suffered in some parts because of that. And I had what I call my Awakening with my Sons of Liberty thing. You know when you go around in life and you feel like things are wrong, but you can’t quite figure out what it is? Then by studying and researching the fractional reserve banking system that we have, it was a very obvious eye-opening experience about the United States and where we’re headed and the dangerous path that we’re on and have been. And the level of propaganda’s pretty hardcore here. So that was a lot of stuff that hit me all at once and it was a very liberating experience and I think it made me put things into perspective. My daughter was born and that changed my perspective. And going in to learn about this stuff that I have and the research that I have done, it just really made me come a life again and to appreciate Iced Earth. Which for a long time was a love-hate relationship and frankly it was mostly hate. It was kind of like beating my head against a brick wall constantly. Iced Earth has always been an uphill battle since the beginning, since I left home as a teenager to start the band, it’s been an uphill battle. And it’s always been that way. But now I got a really great group of people around me from a management standpoint, a road crew, the guys in the band. Everybody’s in this for the right reasons. It’s good. It feels good.

I want to talk about Stu in a second because I know in the creative process he’s chipped-in a lot more than previous singers, in particular. But I want to talk about Dystopia first. Metal, punk, there are a lot of genres that unify under this anti-authoritarian banner. So maybe not thinking about Volbeat fans right now, but for album Dystopia, what do you hope your listeners get out of that album as far as the same things that pushed you into this Awakening.
My biggest hope is that it will inspire people to educate themselves, to learn what’s happening around them and maybe turn off the fucking television and concentrate on what matters. Dystopia is kind of veiled, whereas Sons of Liberty is very direct. It freaks people out. A lot of people can’t handle it. Then there’re those who—I think I’ve Awakened a lot of people. There’s kind of a movement going on that’s a microcosm of a much bigger movement that’s going on in the world. It’s certainly not just for Americans—it’s for human beings, regardless for their race or religion or where they come from. That’s what’s cool about it. The people that understand it and aren’t afraid of it, it invigorates them and that’s what’s cool. But with Dystopia I had to be careful about that. It’s not that it’s political—it’s a question. It’s not about supporting a party. It has nothing to do with that actually. But you have to be careful with a brand like Iced Earth because of the flack I got for The Glorious Burden. It was a misunderstood album in a lot of ways. It seemed like a lot of the press around the world wanted to hate the record because they thought it was just about American military history. But it was about a lot of military history from all around the world. Yeah, I’m an American, that’s my passion, so I focused on that more. I guess my goal with Dystopia was to get the message out there, but in a more veiled way, because the culture here, everyone’s about entertainment. I thought we can use some of these movies for inspiration that are movies about very real things that are happening in a sci-fi text. Some of them. V for Vendetta not so much, but Equilibrium is a very futuristic Brave New World type of society. And you just got to pay attention and you can tell that’s where we’re headed. That’s what these controllers and manipulators have in mind. They’re openly stating it. The media’s complicit and the system’s dumbed the people down to the point that the most important thing in their life is Britney Spears and American Idol and garbage and fucking trash from Hollywood and none of it’s real and certainly not getting back to the principles of liberty and freedom and prosperity for everybody, not for a specific group of people, like this crony capitalist system that we have, which isn’t based on free markets or real capitalism it’s based on corporatism and it’s fascism at the top. You know Hitler may have lost World War II, but fascism won. And that’s clear. And it becomes worse and worse all the time as our freedoms continually become more and more eroded and that’s the slippery slope I think we’re on in this country and what makes it so dangerous not only for us at home, but for the rest of the world. And with the power of the military we have it’s a powerkeg.

This is definitely a long conversation, so I’m not going to jump into it too much, but the root of these concerns you have about where the country and the world are headed—you mentioned the Fed and I know my Ron Paul friends do also—and so is it corporatism that you’re concerned about or—
There’s no doubt the Federal Reserve is the cancer of this country. There’s no question about it, because without that ability to print money out of nothing the empire wouldn’t be able to grow. Not nearly as easily. That was the whole idea of being a gold and silver standard. It would be a very difficult reset to go back to that now. That’s why a lot of people would suffer hardcore. And I think the idea that Ron Paul had of having competing currencies is a good idea to wean people off of this funny money system. Hyperinflation has destroyed the savings of so many millions of Americans because they trust in the system, but the system is there to confiscate your wealth and transfer it to a group of very few families that actually own the Federal Reserve. And that’s the problem we have and if the government is in collusion with that it’s the very definition of fascism where you have private offshore banks, bankers, a cartel working in collusion with a government that uses force to control and allows them to counterfeit money, because it’s not fucking money, it’s paper. It’s just paper. This has happened time and time again throughout history where you go to paper currency and then it gets inflated and it get abused. And it’s one—if it’s the thing Lincoln did where you can control it versus the GDP of a nation then you still run the risk of hyperinflation, but it’s not like now where you have these guys just creating money out of thin air and enslaving the population with debt. I mean because of the Federal Reserve we have income tax funding the country’s government. The Founders were smart guys, they weren’t perfect, but they were smart. They knew through trade tariffs the government would stay small—the Federal government. It’s this Federal Reserve System that’s corrupting these politicians because they’re only looking out for their own interests and they’re not thinking about the future. Even Woodrow Wilson apologized before he died for destroying the country, because he’s the one who signed the Federal Reserve Act. He had a lot of bad guys around him. We have an oligarchy. We don’t have a republic—constitutional republic—that’s a joke. They tell you we do, but that’s not what we have. It’s not about left versus right—it’s about freedom versus slavery. I refuse to accept the Republican-Democrat paradigm anymore. Both parties are controlled by the big megabanks on Wall Street. They’re the ones. And most of these megabanks if you follow them down the line are offshore. Bank of England, Deutschbank, these are—the history of money is a very interesting thing and I think if the people around the world can understand that and recognize it, they would come up with ways to resist that on a local level [by] creating their own currencies. The United States is being outsourced like all our manufacturing—everything is getting done for slave wages in other countries. Who does that benefit? That benefits the giant corporations that want to sell their plastic Chinese-made crap. “Oh I’m a big patriot, I’m going to swing my giant flag around that was made in China, that’s awesome.” It’s ridiculous how much of a joke this thing has turned into. I think if you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, it’s the Federal Reserve System that has allowed this to get so out of control. There’s always going to be corruption, there’s never going to be a utopia. There’s ways, what the Founders came up with, with the checks and balances—what we’ve allowed to erode and go to shit—was actually really cool, because they were very smart guys and they studied history and they knew where this could possibly lead if we didn’t stay on point as citizenry and it’s certain we haven’t.

I want to thank you, that’s one of the most specific [overviews of] your outlook as to this Awakening I’ve seen in your interviews so far, so I appreciate it.
Yeah.

So, Stu, him coming in. I’m interested in your creative process. Now that Stu’s come in, what does it look like for Iced Earth to make a track, to make an album?
It depends on the situation. Typically it’s me working on arrangements in my studio. In the past I’d save most of the stuff—if an arrangement strikes me—if I start working on a piece of music, normally I can hear the vocal melodies and the whole thing. Normally I start with a title or a concept of a song, then I try to come up with music that fits with what’s in my mind’s eye about whatever this theme may be. Then I build on it. Sometimes I write on a bass guitar, sometimes I write on a guitar, on a keyboard—anything goes, whatever sparks that initial idea. Then I start working on sections, then I start arranging the sections. But if it’s something I hear a definitive vocal melody for, that’s kind of a complete picture in my head, which has happened a lot, then I just write the song and arrange it, and I send the demos to the guys, and then they learn them and we get together at the studio and knock them out. With Stu in the band—someone who’s really capable of coming up with really cool vocal melodies, which is one of the things I liked about what he was doing with Into Eternity, they had some big choruses and stuff. I was really impressed with that and that was one of the first things I asked him when we talked on the phone, “Are you coming up with those melodies?” Just because a singer’s singing it, doesn’t mean he’s coming up with them. In a lot of cases it’s not the case and I wanted to see if he had that in them. And he said, “Yeah, those are my parts.” So that made it even more interesting for us to get together. The first thing we did was “End of Innocence.” I sent him the instrumental track and the arrangement probably three or four days before he came to audition, because I wanted to see what he could come up with on the spot. He showed up with that and I was like, “Man, this feels really cool.” And he writes some cool lyrics. Matt wrote great lyrics, too, and he came up with some good parts as well—I’m not taking anything away from that—but Stu and I have a cool chemistry. In the past, if I couldn’t hear the vocal melodies, I would normally save that stuff for Demons & Wizards, because I knew Hansi would be able to come up with something really cool for an arrangement where I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know where this is going.” But I have a lot of faith in Stu’s ability to craft cool melodies—I saw it happen right before my eyes. When we worked in the studio—not on the musical arrangements, I had all that stuff done—but when we started focusing on the icing on the cake, which is the vocal parts, I would be working on a song that I’m writing the lyrics and vocal melodies for and he’s on the other side of the studio with headphones on working on one that he’s working on. Sometimes we worked on the lyrics together. The way I write—it’s funny because Michael [Volbeat] does the same thing—is I’ll just spit out a cadence, like a melody and a timing thing. I’ll sing total nonsense. Then I’ll frame the lyrical theme that I started with when I started creating that piece of music—like if it’s based on the Civil War or whatever, I might scratched down some lyrics in the process knowing they’re going to be changed completely and edited to fit the cadence I hear in my head when I start working on vocal parts. That’s the way it works. It depends on what strikes me and what I feel passionate about. It might be Stu feels more passionate about it than I do and I’m like, “Well you’re going to do that, because it makes sense.” And I was working on Sons of Liberty stuff while I was working on the last album, too. I wrote the EP all at the same time as the Dystopia album.

I just heard you mention at the end there when you’re talking about this creative process, how does revision fit in? I know a lot of writers of prose sometimes write three or four times the amount of words as what ends up getting published. They write a draft and throw it away or change part of it. What does the revision process look like for you all or does this stuff come out in streams?
It comes out in streams, but I’d say that the biggest revision part is through the arrangements. That’s a hugely important part of making a song. So that it flows in a way that feels natural and people get it. It’s a really important part. You can play one section two times too many and it can start to get boring for people. It’s one of the most important and I’ll work on arrangements until the very end. Even sometimes in mastering I’ll say, “That chorus is too much, we have to cut it back,” or whatever. It’s happened.

So tonight. When I saw you all in Milwaukee in 2004 or 2005 with Children of Bodom, it was a great live show. That’s a constant refrain you hear about Iced Earth—it’s a really energetic live show. What does it take for you all to put in to give that out on a nightly basis? What goes into it—off stage, on stage—in order to make that happen?
Well, this is actually pretty easy for us because we’re doing 40 minutes. We feel like we’re just getting warmed up and it’s time to say goodbye to the fans, so it’s a different thing. At the end of this run we will have done 120 shows since November 1, all over the world. It’s been awesome, actually. I don’t know how we do it, honestly. There’s a lot of people that aren’t made for this. Especially touring at this level. We don’t have all the luxuries of the big guys—the comforts and that kind of stuff. So it can be difficult for people, but I think there’s a group of people here now that can handle this. It’s tiring. You have to try to keep your body in shape and your mind in shape. You get trapped sometimes. We go on binges where we party too hard. But we still pull it off, we still make the show happen. Stu and I were up drinking all night for the second show of this tour. We were up fucking wrestling in the front lounge [of the bus] until the wee hours of the morning partying our asses off being a couple of Viking idiots. But we still had a great show the next day. We do that kind of stuff. I think we all have to cut loose every once in a while. Because you get kind of [growls] out here and you miss your families. The last leg of this tour was three months long. That’s a long time and it’s tough to cover thousands and thousands of miles by bus and then 35,000 miles by air. That’s just for a month. We were in airplanes every day. That shit wears you out.

What’re you drinking these days?
Johnnie Walker Black Label. If I drink. I’ve been a good boy on this tour. That’s the other thing, we’re preparing for Cyprus [the live album]. We’re doing three hours of music in one show, but we’re doing a tour where we’re doing 40 minutes. So we’re trying to figure out how the hell we’re going to keep all these songs tight when we can’t do them in the [current] set. We got some headline shows at the end of this and some festivals in Europe and we have a few days of rehearsal in Germany before Cyprus. We’ll be fine, but it’s just a little bit [makes a face] because we have some epic shit that we can’t play every day.

Well, Jon, thank you. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, you’re welcome.