Interviewed by EvilG / Transcription by Duke
Questions by EvilG & Lord of the Wasteland
Promo Demons & Wizards Pics courtesy of Earsplit PR
Live Pics of Jon Schaffer by Lord of the Wasteland
The collaboration of Iced Earth songwriter/guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi K?rsch rocked the metal world in 2000 with the release of their self-titled debut. Now some five years later, they have found time to release another solid album entitled TOUCHED BY THE CRIMSON KING. As usual, Jon is a great interview subject who gives lengthy answers without having to do any prodding. In fact, some of his detailed replies answered other questions I had for him! Since Jon was doing interviews in support of the new Demons & Wizards release, the bulk of this interview is about that band. However, I managed to squeeze in some Iced Earth stuff at the end.
What musical outlet does Demons & Wizards offer you that Iced Earth does not?
I don?t know if there is one, actually, it?s really not about that. Iced Earth is my baby. It?s my band and I have nurtured it, driven it, and kept it alive for the last 20 years. So it really isn?t a creative thing that I need. The thing that is cool about Demons is that it?s a project based on friendship, this relationship that I?ve had with Hansi for the last 15 years. We became like brothers when we toured Europe together in 1990. It was years later, ?97 or ?98 I believe, that we wrote our first song together and it all kinda happened by accident. I was at his house visiting him for a couple of days and we had been up the night before slamming some beers. We woke up kinda hung over and were sitting around bored and I grabbed his acoustic guitar, started playing and he started singing and we looked at each other and thought, ?Hey man, this sounds pretty cool?. So we went over to the Twilight Hall and we recorded this song that ended up being ?My Last Sunrise?. It?s the last song on the first album. At that point we didn?t really know what we were gonna do. We talked about Iced Earth and Blind Guardian both covering versions of that song. Then I hit him with the idea when we were touring Spain together in ?98 or ?99, ?why don?t we just go out and do our own thing?? He was into that so we did it.
The one thing is that Demons & Wizards is pretty much stress-free. I have a partner who?s a full-fledged veteran of the music business in every way. He knows what?s going on, he gets the contracts structured, he?s a creator, and he?s a leader. So there?s a very high level of respect between Hansi and me. There are no surprises. Hansi is who he is, and I am who I am. When we do Demons & Wizards we do it because it?s a fun thing to do. There is no stress, no expectations about what it has to be like or what sales it has to reach, nothing like that. The first one came out and it exploded in Europe. It was a huge success and it had a Grammy nomination and all these things in Germany. It got a lot bigger than we expected and that was cool. But if that hadn?t happened, we wouldn?t have been disappointed. The same goes with this one and anything that we do in the next 20 years. We do this because we enjoy it and it doesn?t really matter what comes out of it.
When the first CD came out, was it meant to be a one-off project or were there always plans for several more releases if things went well?
There were always plans for more releases. We will do this as long as we have fun with it and can fit it in. If it takes two years, five years, seven years, whatever, we?re gonna do it when we can. I would expect that Hansi and I will continue this for the rest of our lives. I don?t see any reason why we wouldn?t go on until we retire from music. We enjoy it and it?s a fun thing.
I believe from what I?ve read that on this album you wrote a lot of the songs and then sent them over for Hansi to work on. But at the end, two or three were written together. I was wondering if you could tell me about the ones you wrote together and what it was like actually writing with him like that as opposed to through e-mail or however you do the other ones.
Well, it?s better and I would prefer to do it more often because the only song on the first album that we wrote together was ?My Last Sunrise?. The rest were all done through mail. On this album we did? I know ?Beneath These Waves? was definitely one that we wrote in person together. I believe ?Lunar Lament? was one as well? We had a lot of different working titles. It was like three or four that we were able to do together and what was cool was the chemistry there. We were brainstorming and bouncing things off each other and that?s a cool thing. That?s how I like to do it. The problem is time. If we could get together and put away everything else and just focus on writing we could knock out some awesome stuff, I know it. But the problem is either one of us getting a month of time. Maybe we can do that later. Maybe on the next album we can have a shot at it. I think Hansi feels the same way I do, that it adds something when we?re there brainstorming over it together. But because of the distance and everything it works this way.
If I send him a musical arrangement he comes up with a vocal melody and sends it back to me and we talk about it, maybe change some things and rearrange it on what he hears as a chorus or a verse or whatever. That?s the thing that makes it kinda cool because in Iced Earth I write the vocal melodies and the lyrics on 95 percent of the stuff. If I write a song by myself it?s because I?m very confident in where the song goes. I know what the vocal melody is that I hear in my head. I know the way everything is going to be arranged and laid out and all that. But when co-writing I know the pieces of music that I have made but I?m not exactly sure where I take the vocal points, it?s not very obvious. So that?s the part I send to Hansi or I co-write with other people. That?s the part about Demons that is really stress-free and a fun thing to do, because the way I write vocal melodies and Hansi writes vocal melodies are really different. He will hear things in a very different way than I will. That?s what makes it create a monster, because Hansi is not singing over major key stuff when he?s singing to my stuff, I?m mostly in minor harmonics, minor keys, where Andr? tends to write major keys. So there?s a very different influence there that Hansi has to come up with something on top of. That kinda forces him to come up with stuff that is a little darker than what he usually does with Blind Guardian. I think that?s kinda cool because he still does his trademark vocal layering. I?ve always considered Hansi to be a trademark for metal because the dude creates amazing vocal passages and makes himself sound like 30 guys. It?s a Hansi trademark, nobody else does that like him.
When you finally get to hear his interpretation of your music with his melody lines, does he always blow you away with what he does with it?
It?s not that it blows me away but it?s cool that when I give him certain musical parts it?s because I don?t have a particular vocal melody in mind. It?s always cool to hear what he gets out of it because if I were to send it to him and say that I have a vocal melody for this, I know exactly what to do with it, then it would sound like Iced Earth with another singer. I don?t approach the music any differently. That is really the key element that makes it different from Iced Earth and different from Blind Guardian. Andr? isn?t writing the musical passages in Demons & Wizards, I am. And I?m not writing the vocal melodies, Hansi is. That?s what creates a new monster. I think it?s always cool to hear what he comes up with and it was really cool as we were sitting there in person. I would start playing something, a part would come in mind and I would start playing that and Hansi would just sit there in his own world with his eyes closed, humming stuff. Then I would go and record it or lay it out on the computer, go into another room for an hour and hear him in there fooling around. When I came back he would have a cool vocal melody and I would be like ?Man, that?s awesome, what was going on in your head?? It?s one thing to hear the main root melody, but when you hear it after he?s layered it and added all these other harmonies that he has going on in his head too, that takes it to another level and THAT is the stuff that blows me away with Hansi, how he takes what would be a cool vocal harmony and turns it into a whole army of Hansis coming at you.
The solos on the new album were played by Jim Morris (producer). I was wondering if you considered doing any of the lead guitar playing yourself this time?
Well, I did the lead melodies and stuff. As far as the guitar solos go, that?s just not my thing, never has been. There are guys out there and that?s what they do and they do it well. I?ve never been the guy who feels that. I?m a songwriter and a rhythm guy. I play all the lead (melodies) on both Iced Earth and Demons, but as far as solos, that?s just something I have never been into. There has never been a guitar player who has touched me so I want to play that way or express myself like that. I express myself through my songs. To me, a guitar solo is like icing on the cake, it?s not the song, it?s really not important. It?s cool when it?s there and when it says something. That is why I like Jim?s style and why I asked him to be involved in this. He?s a grown man and plays guitar like a grown man. These shredder guys are a dime a dozen. There?s a million people out there who can play a million notes within a measure and that doesn?t turn me on. There?s so real soul behind it. It?s like sitting in your bedroom doing scales for hours and that doesn?t impress me. Jim Morris is older than me and Hansi by ten years. He?s from the school of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Dave Gilmour and that?s cool. I?ve never been a Floyd fan and I?m not a Hendrix fan really ? I like some of his stuff ? and I?m really not a Clapton fan but I certainly respect and appreciate what they have done for the music world. But when you put a guy who has been influenced like that and throw a metal riff at him it adds a different flavour to it in general. He plays like a grown man, he can play three notes and make them count while a young kid who sits around trying to impress people with how fast he is with arpeggios or whatever, that doesn?t say anything to me. Music is about feeling and soul. It seemed like for a long time songs had to be written with a guitar solo in mind. ?Oh, we have to have a guitar solo!? I don?t agree with that. I did write like that, but not now and probably not in the last decade. If a guitar solo is gonna add something to a song and if it feels like it needs to be there, then I?ll add a section in there for a guitar solo. But it?s really not an important thing for me as a songwriter. Jim Morris is the same way. He?s not really a songwriter but he certainly has worked with a lot of them. He?s of the mindset too that guitar solos can sometimes be just annoying.
There are a lot of mellow moments on the CD or songs that start mellow, like ?The Gunslinger?, and then they get heavy. These acoustic parts, were they written on an acoustic guitar or did some other factor influence you in that kind of writing?
I write a lot of heavy stuff on acoustic guitars. It just varies. I use a bass guitar as a writing tool, I use a baritone, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, anything I pick up. I might screw around with a keyboard and come up with a part and then turn it into a guitar part. Usually when a part comes over me it comes fast and hard and I gotta get it down before I lose it. Then I can structure it and decide that the guitars will be playing this part, the dirty guitar will do this and the bass will do this. That always comes once I get down the root thing and as I said, I can use any instrument to write with. I guess it was more of a frame of mind that I was in when writing this record, because there is a lot more acoustic guitar on this one than on stuff that I did in the past.
I understand that Stephen King?s ?The Dark Tower? influenced a number of tracks on this CD. What was it about those books that struck a chord with either you or Hansi?
Well, it was Hansi. I haven?t read the series. I don?t know really. He was finishing it when we were doing our thing there in early November (2004). He was telling me that he wanted to use some of those ideas and we talked about some of the songs that might work thematically with that and the concept of Blaine the Mono. There?s only three songs about it. ?Crimson King?, ?Terror Train? and ?The Gunslinger? are related to that and everything else is really a story of its own. When Hansi was telling me about Blaine the Mono, this apocalyptic train that just hurtled towards destruction, I was pretty sure that this piece of nusic that I had written was pretty intense and had the feeling of this train speeding and going out of control. It?s probably one of the most complex rhythm guitar songs that I have ever written. It?s just ripping the whole way through ? well, there is a solo there so the melody structure there is a bit of a break ? but it just pushes the limit all the way through. That?s the one we ended up doing the video for. I actually saw the final edit just this morning and it looks pretty killer, so I?m happy about it. But it?s just Hansi, he?s always looking for stuff to write about and a lot of his lyrical stuff is influenced my literature.
?Beneath These Waves?, the first song we wrote together for this album, was based on Moby Dick. Then you?ve got ?Love?s Tragedy Asunder? which is based on a real story about a man?s wife who is terminally ill and he assists her in suicide and ends up killing himself. It?s pretty dark. ?Down Where I Am? is about a baby born with Down?s Syndrome and the struggle of his father and the emotions going in and out of his mind. It?s all pretty heavy despite all the acoustic guitars and it doesn?t matter if the music came first or the lyrics came first or if it was written all together. The way I define heavy is that it creates a moving emotion inside you. If the piece of music can bring tears to your eyes, that?s heavy. It doesn?t have to be D-tuned music with cookie monster vocals to be heavy. That to me is D-rated cheese metal compared to really moving emotional music. I think that a song like ?Down Where I Am? is very heavy. You listen to it and most of the song is acoustic. But if you listen to what it is about and if you think about it, me being a new parent and everything, it?s just very moving. That shit is reality, not just ?I?m gonna fuck a dead corpse!? It?s cheese what half the bands out there do.
Did Hansi do all the lyrics or did you write any yourself for the album?
I wrote some for songs that we ended up putting on the deluxe version. One is ?Lunar Lament? and the other one is ?Spatial Architects?. We left those off the main release because while they are good songs, they seemed to interrupt the flow of the record as it is right now, as the main release is. I think they may have put those songs on the American release anyway which is weird, it wasn?t supposed to be that way. There is a digipack version with two cds and awesome packaging and artwork. Then there?s the American version and the European single version. As usual, the labels do something to screw you. I think those songs are available anyway. The thing is, we wanted the album so that when a person sits down and listens to it for the first time they notice a certain slope to it. But they?re still good songs, they just interrupt the flow somewhat.
I read that you were looking at doing some touring and that Sami, the bass player from Sentenced, was being scouted for playing bass. Is this a reality or what?s the news on it?
That?s very possible, it?s just not gonna be this year. We knew that when we had finished writing we were already getting offers to headline the biggest festival in Europe and we said ?No, we can?t, it?s just impossible?. I said to Hansi that we had to get this thing done in November or December or else it would be another year before I could come back to it. He was like ?Yeah, me too, let?s do it!? We had a window of opportunity where we had to do it. Knowing that he was going into pre-production for the new Blind Guardian and I was going to sit down and write the new Iced Earth, we had to get it done. So we can?t commit to any touring right now, it?s just impossible.
The most important thing for me right now and the only thing that I would interrupt the writing period for the new Iced Earth for is if Metallica or Iron Maiden called and said: ?We want you to open for us?. Then we drop everything and Iced Earth would jump at an opportunity like that. But anything else it?s not worth it because the preparations of a tour and doing the tour takes so much time that it would put back the release of the next album six months or a year. It?s not an option for me right now. So Hansi and I are discussing the possibility of doing some shows for the main market of America. We did Europe on the first album, it was a big successful tour. So I think we want to do the US this time and if we do it will be half a dozen shows. New York, Chicago, Detroit, LA, whatever, and record them so we can do a live album. Since we started with this project we have talked about doing a live record and I?m pushing for doing it in the States. Hansi is into that, he thinks it?s a cool idea because it?s not what you would expect. People would expect us to do it in Spain or Italy or whatever and I think it would be cool to show the rest of the world that an American audience is pretty damn killer. I think recording in a place like New York would be awesome. Hansi is also into it so it will be a reality. The only question is when we will do it. Early next year, middle of next year? It?s a question of where he will be with recording the new Blind Guardian and how far the writing is for the next Iced Earth, are we ready to record it? All that stuff has to come into play.
Now for a couple of questions about Iced Earth. I know you?re about to head into writing mode for the next album. Have you thought ahead about who will record the album, and what the band lineup will be?
It?s just gonna be me and Tim and Bobby, that?s all that is for sure. I?m looking at some people in terms of bass players and guitars but I?m not sure if these guys that I?m thinking of will even be on the record or not. That?s probably more for a touring situation. We?ll see, it?s really not gonna change anything regardless. I?ve played a lot of the bass on every Iced Earth album and people don?t really know that. I actually enjoy playing bass and have done it a lot on the past albums and will probably do it on the next one. It?s like on this album I had a studio bass player come in, a guy who plays with his fingers, because on certain songs I like that sound, so I had him do like three songs and a couple of parts here and there. The rest of it I did. That?s an easy solution and I can get done with the stuff pretty quick so I don?t have to worry about a guy taking up a shitload of studio time trying to get the parts right.
Do you have a rough idea when something might be released for the next album?
It really depends on how the writing goes. This is going to be the continuation of the SOMETHING WICKED… album and it?s going to be a full concept record. That?s by far the most ambitious thing that I have ever done as a writer. It?s going to be two records that I?m writing at one time, so the workload is tremendous. The plan is to put out part one and at that time finish part two so part two will come out six months afterwards and then the world tour starts. The writing is going to be a lot more in-depth and complex than anything I have ever done. Besides all the symphony parts I will be doing all kinds of percussion parts, Latin, Middle-Eastern, Oriental stuff, Japanese war drums?It?s going to be so many different atmospheres in order to tell this story and world instruments like sitars. No one has done what I?m talking about before in the way that I?m hearing this. From the time that I start it could take me up to a year to write it. Then a few months to record it and release time, so we?re probably looking at late 2006 for part one and then early 2007 for part two. It could go quicker, it just depends on how everything flows because at the same time I will be writing and directing this whole comic book thing as well so that when the record comes out, the mini-series is out, or at least the first part of it. So when people get the comic book they can visualise the whole thing.
It?s a trip, it?s a story that is really in-depth and it?s a mind-fuck. All I can say is that the cliff-hanger is going to be pretty tremendous and when you get to the end it?s gonna be like ?Holy shit!?