Interview with ATHEIST´s Kelly Shaefer and Steve Flynn
Interview and live pictures by Luxi Lahtinen
Thanks to Andy Osborn for the transcription
The Floridian jazz-tinged tech-deathsters Atheist, disbanded in 1994, but 12 years later, decided to resurrect the band back from the dead. Since then lots of things have happened for the band. Atheist signed to the French Season of Mist label (as well as Gnostic, featuring three members from the Atheist camp). Then they hired a young, but very talented rookie named Jonathan Thompson to play the second guitar in the band, and have done quite a lot of an intensive touring for the last couple of years – playing at as many festivals as possible, added with some well selected clubs gigs as well.
On August 15th 2009, Atheist finally hit the Finnish soil for the very first time during their whole history, performing an exclusive show at Jalometalli festival in Oulu, which many consider a true mecca for the Finnish metal. Just 2 hours before the show, I managed to hook up with both Atheist frontman Kelly Shaefer and skin basher Steve Flynn, who both shedded some light on what´s going on in the Atheist camp at the moment – telling when people can expect a new album from them and so on.
So guys, to get started…
ABOUT COMING TO JALOMETALLI AND FINLAND
This is your very 1st time to play in Finland. What kind of expectations do you have about playing here in Finland, and especially here at Jalometalli festival in Oulu?
: From observing the crowd, they seem like a genuinely metal crowd. Lots of leather jackets, lots of patches, and just lots of support and enthusiasm so we expect that it will be a good time. We always bring a party with us anyway so if they do their part, we’ll do ours.
: And the festivals we have played in Sweden and Norway have always been good.
I am also kinda curious to know, what do you know about Finland anyway, and especially about our metal scene over here?
(*Both guys being silent first – and then bursting out laughing loud*)
: I haven’t shut up about it since I’ve been here, and I keep saying “Man, I love Finland.” So far I like it better than Sweden or Norway; it’s not as expensive, people know how to pour a drink, the festival is really organized, the people are friendly and it’s very beautiful.
You have been doing quite a lot of touring lately, doing all these summer festivals here in Europe, but also playing some shows in your own home country. So I need to ask from you how well people have received you both in the States and here in Europe? What about this younger generation of kids who weren´t there back in the day when you released your 3 albums in the early 90´s?
: They are one of the main reasons we’re doing a new record. It’s amazing how many of the younger kids all around the world are discovering our music for the first time. We’re so grateful that our music has been able to transcend generations and still stand up against today’s metal. That’s a rarity as an artist to have that. They have really let us know that it would make sense to make a new record, on top of the fact that it went really well when we starting jamming together again. I wish we had these smart metal fans when we used to be around.
: They did not like us back then, but they like us now.
PLAYING SHOWS AROUND THE WORLD
What´s been the most memorable show for you so far when you have been on the road with Atheist, and played for all of your Atheist fans out there?
: Certainly Wacken 3 years ago, in 2006.
: That was our first festival ever, and it was overwhelming and just huge. We played a decent show and it was just a magical happening. We also had a great one at Hellfest a year and a half later.
: Oddly enough, Murderfest in LA with our friends Obituary was a great show. Bergen, Norway was very nice. Almost all the festivals have been really good. There have been few smaller shows in The States that were less than stellar…
: Our first reunion show which was Bloodstock in England a few years ago was a bit of a trainwreck.
: That was horrible. We’re trying to make it back there to make it up to them next year, certainly.
You got this bad throat infection in Czech Republic. How is your throat right at the very moment?
: On the way over my throat was really sore and it kept getting worse. We found a doctor in Czech Republic and it turns out I had strep throat! So I had to get on antibiotics which means I couldn’t drink or smoke. Fortunately it healed up 4 days later and the first few shows were painful but we still had fun. It was pretty scary to be in the Czech Republic and have this serious strep throat.
Now when Atheist has been doing these shows, have you kept the set list of your songs the same through all these dates, or have you changed it along the way when you have played all of these Atheist shows?
: We have limited opportunity to work on our set list and we’re also focusing on writing new material so we haven’t spent much time on constructing. We have a strong, core set of songs and since we live in different states – two in Florida and three in Georgia. That kind of work is really difficult to accomplish. We have worked on adding and switching around, but it’s just too hard so we just stick with our core set. When we come back next year after the album is done, we’ll have some new songs to play and some older ones we haven’t been playing live.
WRITING NEW ATHEIST ALBUM
How is the songwriting going for the new album?
: It’s hard to write when we’re on the road.
: We have 3 skeletons of songs that will probably completely change when we go. We tend to write the framework and then over the course of time it fills in, especially with the drums. So we have 3 significant ideas that we’ve put together and now that we have a new guitar player, Jonathan Thompson, who is very good and a young kid. He was a fan of Atheist when he was younger, so we’re looking forward to playing guitar and I’ll be writing with Flynn and Tony. The early feeling is right where we left off with UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE. It’s going to be very unique and different, even though we haven’t lost a step at all.
ELEMENTS, Atheist´s 3rd and latest studio album thus far, was very different content-wise compared to your two 1st studio albums. How much do you value that album nowadays, now 16 years later?
: Obviously, it was a bit much for people but that’s always the case with us. People are always scratching their heads at what we do. It took 13 years for people to respect that album and now it has its own little place in Atheist history. It’s a unique record and every time you make something that’s odd or unique you’re going to have 50% of the people confused and 50% of the people intrigued. Now, it’s becoming mostly intrigue since a lot of time has passed and a lot of other strange metal has come out. It makes more sense today than it did then. We’re still very proud of that record.
UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE – LIVE AT WACKEN double CD was just recently released by Relapse Records, containing a complete live set when you played at that legendary festival, plus also a collection of Atheist songs, hand-picked by the band. Was the main purpose to release this kind of thing to let this new generation of metal heads also aware of Atheist´s existence so that they would realize that a lot of great metal was created back in the day, just like Atheist recorded 3 fine albums before called it quits.
: We had a great opportunity to once again work with Relapse, and those guys are just as good as it gets. They have done such a phenomenal job and pulling all this back together and properly re-present our band. After we found out the Wacken stuff had been together, we had a little conference and we decided to release it raw, without any overdubbing like most live CDs are done. We picked the songs and made some liner notes and it’s a great package, and it’s cheap compared to a typical double record. It was just a great opportunity to work with Relapse again before heading off to Season of Mist.
: It was fun, because they asked to write a little story about the weekend and what it meant to us. It was fun to write about it and get into our heads about what those songs meant to us, and what kind of a milestone it represents for the band.
: Now it’s sort of immortalized. It’s there forever and that’s one of the finest memories in our career and now it’s there on a CD – and that is nice.
ATHEIST DVD – WHEN?
There been some plans for an Atheist DVD as well. What are the latest updates regarding that?
: That will be later in 2010. We want to finish the new record and then do the DVD properly. It’s not just that, it will be a retrospective all the way back from 1985 until now. We have some amazing footage of Roger when he was still alive and I know the fans will want to see the hell we went through to get here. A lot of the young kids who are getting into us now have no idea how much shit we went through to be where we are today. It’s going to be a great opportunity to tell our story and our struggle. It’s a feel good story because it ends very well. It will be a lot of work to put together but it will be amazing.
What about Gnostic and Atheist. 3 of the current members from the Gnostic line-up also play in Atheist, so aren´t you a bit afraid that some people may confuse these two bands together because the music of both bands isn´t that far removed from each other. Without a question, some musical similarities are definitely there…
: I don’t think so. I think it’s a lot more different than some people realize. The one common element is the drumming. I have a style that in many ways is similar to my previous recording, UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE. I have the same use of cymbals and fills and the way I arrange songs, I do a lot of the arranging. I think people hear elements of that, but the riffs and vocals are completely different. Our guitar play Sonny is a big blast beat type fan so he writes riffs like that; much different than Kelly would write a riff. And Tony being the bass play versus Jonathan in Gnostic, there’s a real distinct vibe. At first I was hopeful that people would view Gnostic by itself, but still knowing full well that we use the Atheist momentum. We use that to our fullest extent but we want to be judged by itself because it is its own entity. Reviewers online, magazines, fans, everyone has given it its own identity, I think. I mean there will always be people like “This is Steve from Atheist, there are some similar elements, etc.” And then it goes on… If the music was more similar than it would be hard. We would be in a world of confusion. This whole thing is an experiment for us; being on tour at the same time and playing double shows. Our band members switch around and so far it has worked well. But it is difficult and I don’t know if we will do it together in the future. A ten day tour with both bands is a lot of work. But it is fun, and we’re having a great time. We’re going to play it by ear and let things unfold organically. I’m just glad people are giving Gnostic a chance to be its own entity.
Both Gnostic and Atheist are signed to the French Season of Mist. Do you believe that it is sort of an advantage for both bands to be on the same label, making just things a bit easier to work with them, than let´s say if both bands were signed to different labels?
: It makes a perfect business sense – and a perfect marketing sense for us in every way. The guy over at Season of Mist is a very big fan of Atheist and Gnostic, so that’s been a big part of it. At the end of the day that’s what is most important, is the person selling the music needs to be a fan of it. He believes in Gnostic and he has a lot of faith in us. He has been chasing Atheist for the past 5-6 years, so… In his own words, he said it was his childhood dream to sign Atheist and it’s a dream of ours to be signed and at this point in our career to be able to come back and do this. We are very blessed – very lucky guys, I think.
FROM THE PAST TO THE CURRENT TIMES
As you have noticed, many metal bands that disbanded sometimes during the 90´s, have all made their comebacks (Exodus, Death Angel, Pestilence, Cynic, etc. – the list is endless), and managed to create an impact on younger metal crowd as well. Do you also feel that Atheist has done the same, causing some sort of an impact on this new generation of metal heads wherever you have played so far?
: It would appear so. I know what we’re capable of and I’m excited to see the reaction of a new record. For them it will be material from their generation so they’ll actually pull it closer to their heart since it’s contemporary and new. I think already we’ve managed to make an impact on this generation. It shows at the shows. Most of the kids that come to the meet and greets are young musicians.
: I think the other thing it impacts is when we meet bands who are 20 years old and they tell us “we started because of you.” That kind of recognition and complement is incredible, you don’t even know what to say. I think I was most surprised when we started playing again, all these bands would come up to us and us we influenced them, it’s really amazing.
: You look at the younger bands at the top of their game like The Faceless or Obscura and their fucking amazing. They’re only 20 and 21 years old and there’s no better feeling that having them tell us we’ve inspired what they have done. We grew up with Iron Maiden and Metallica and those bands have had an incredible impact on us. If we even have half of that impact on these bands, what a fucking great thing as an artist to be able to impact people like that.
How would you say the metal scene has been changing over the years from your own point of view, let´s say, within all those years when Atheist was on the top of their success in the early 90´s – up to 2006 when the band was reformed again, and from that year on when you have been involved with this whole metal scene for the last 3 years as Atheist?
: It’s way more educated than it used to be, the fans are much smarter.
: Musicianship is such a focus now and that wasn’t really there when we were playing.
: They are paying close attention to everything including the lyrics which is nice since you can’t really understand most of the lyrics anyway. They appreciate the little things that we appreciated when we were writing. We would write these parts that we thought were amazing but then no one ever really noticed. These days you see an 18 year old kid or 19 year old kid who is like, ”Oh my god I love that little part” or you look out into the crowd when you’re playing and that’s just amazing. We will always be grateful for that. This is one band that will never be unappreciative or take any of this for granted. Every single kid and every face very goat, it all means the world to us. We are so lucky.
NOT RUINING THE LEGACY
What´s gonna happen for Atheist in 2010? I mean, what kind of plans do you have for Atheist for the next year?
: What’s key about what’s going to happen is from people like you. We owe a lot to the press to help keeping us in people’s minds. But next year is without a doubt going to be the biggest year of our career. Steve and I have talked about it and we think it would be great to have the impact that Motörhead has had, to be the Motörhead of technical metal. To be a band that everyone appreciates and we can come back and tour for the next five years and have some respect. That’s all we ever wanted, was for people to respect what we do since we work so hard. It’s definitely never been about money, I mean we have families and kids so it makes it difficult to do these 2 month tours. We will never play 300 shows a year but the shows we do are very significant and we want to play for as many people as we can. That’s why these festivals are so amazing, is because you can play to 50,000 people at once. Even if 10% of them buy the record that’s a good thing. But this new record means the world to us and we won’t fuck with it in any way. We swore we would never do a new record but I’m going to eat my words and make sure it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
: We’re not doing it just to do it. We are going to take it very seriously. We’re our own worst critics and we scrutinize everything. We don’t want to be one of those bands that returns and puts out a new record just for the sake of going through the motions. With Gnostic I realized I just want to play, I just want to sit down and jam. When we were working on new material and when I realized other people are going to hear it so I really need to get my shit together. I knew from that point on that there is no way the record is going to leave our hands and be released until we are happy with it.
: I would never want to cheapen our legacy by putting out some half-assed bullshit. A lot of people don’t think we’re able to make something as good as the old days.
: People always say “Don’t do that! You’re going to ruin the legacy!” But we’re concerned too! All these years later I’m more nuts now about pushing the envelope and being more creative and trying to squeeze as much in there as possible. There are so many great drummers that I have learned so much from touring with bands like The Faceless and Obscura. We’ve been talking to these guys and learning and watching, so and we’re going to take that and use it to play the best that we can.
I guess that was all this time. Thank you so much Steve and Kelly for taking your time with this. It was a real pleasure to talk with you guys.
: No, thank you Luxi. We really appreciated this.
: Yeah, thanks Luxi. It was great finally meeting you as person.
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