Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth / Demons & Wizards
Interviewed in March 2000 by EvilG
To me, Iced Earth are like the saviors of American METAL. They, and a small but growing handful of bands from the US, are playing what I consider to be REAL METAL. The latest piece of excitement for all Iced Earth and Blind Guardian fans is the much hyped (and deservedly so) collaboration of Jon Schaffer and Hansi Kursch called Demons & Wizards. I was given the opportunity to talk to Jon about this band and about what’s in store for us with regards to Iced Earth.
Hey Jon, I’ve been looking forward to your call. I hope you’re not all “interviewed out” yet?
No man, not a problem. You’re the first today So I’m all ready to go. Things have kind of eased up a bit since the European promotional tour. I did like 200 interviews in just a few days!
I’ll get the basic question that everyone asks out of the way first. When did you and Hansi first develop the idea that has turned into Demons & Wizards?
Well I don’t know if you or the people know this but Iced Earth and Blind Guardian have been friends for years, ever since we first toured together in 1990. It was on these early tours that me and Hansi ended up hanging out and doing some drinking. I picked up my guitar and just started playing stuff and the next thing I knew Hansi was singing over it. That song turned into “My Last Sunrise” – the last track on the Demons & Wizards CD.
Eventually after we agreed to work together I sent some tapes over to Hansi that he liked a lot. He worked out the vocal lines and we got together in the summer of 1999 and put the rest of it together. In August/Sept ’99 we recorded the album at Morrisound with Jim Morris. Things have been great. We did the promo tour in Europe and the reaction was tremendous.
Yeah there’s been a lot of hype about the CD and I’ve been looking forward to it. It’s definitely everything I hoped it would be. I’m a fan of both bands and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the end result is great! I was hoping it wasn’t going to sound just like Iced Earth with Hansi on vocals and I think it’s a bit more than that.
A lot of people have said that’s what they think it is. I mean, it is me on guitar and writing the music but Hansi’s influence is in there too. So some of it may sound like that…
Maybe a couple parts but something new was created.
Yeah, the sum of the parts has resulted in a new band. This is not just a one time thing, we plan on writing more music and doing more Demons & Wizards albums.
Can you tell me where you got the title “Demons & Wizards”?
Well I came up with it with help from my wife Wendy. I wanted something that would reflect both personalities on both myself and Hansi. I first thought Demons and Angels but thought that it didn’t have that ring to it. Then I thought “Demons and Wizards” and immediately I knew it was the one. I called Hansi the next day and told him the idea and he said lets use it. Hansi and Blind Guardian have always been more of a happy band than Iced Earth. They would say to us “why are you always pissed off” because when we would hang out with them we’d be laughing and having a good time. But that’s not where we are coming from, we’re cannot be one of those happy German power metal bands like Helloween or something. I like some of that stuff but it’s not what Iced Earth are about. So the title kind of reflects our personalities.
When I first heard about the D&W project I assumed it would be on Century Media considering that Iced Earth and Blind Guardian are on the label but the CD is on SPV?
Well Iced Earth are on Century Media and Blind Guardian are distributed in the US by Century Media, they are signed to Virgin in Europe. I actually wanted to work with another label to see what it would be like. I am not loyal to any one label like Century Media, I am loyal to some of the people at that label though. It’s just that over the last 10 years some things have happened with them that I wanted to see what it would be like to work with another label.
So are you happy with how you’ve been treated and how the CD has been promoted so far?
Yes they’ve been very good to us. When we were in Europe just before Christmas on the promo tour they had everything planned and organized for us very well. When we would travel between stops they had us flying business class and treated us with consideration. They took into account the busy and hectic schedule we had and did their best to make us feel comfortable.
How many of the songs on the CD are new as opposed to something maybe left over from Iced Earth or maybe Blind Guardian?
I would say 95% of the material is new and was written for this. Two of the songs on there are actually very old and were written back when I was in Purgatory. Those two songs were “Tear Down the Walls” and “Gallows Pole.” I was listening to some stuff on a tape I had forgotten about. When we were in the studio a sound man was there who was also around when I was playing those songs in bars in Purgatory. When I was playing the riffs he was singing along and Hansi and Jim were just looking at him like “what in the fuck” (laughs). I explained to them what the deal was and Hansi commented that it just goes to show that good music is timeless.
So have any of the guys in Iced Earth heard the material and said something like “fuck – that riff was amazing, why didn’t you keep it for the next Iced Earth album?”
Well they know where my priorities are. Iced Earth is my baby. I will give it my all no matter what I’m writing. I have lots of riffs and ideas and when I write something and I like it I will use it. So they know that this won’t take away from my writing for the next Iced Earth CD.
Has the press commitments or writing for this delayed the new Iced Earth or did it fit in perfectly to your schedule?
Maybe by a couple of weeks but not really. I needed a break from it anyway. Actually I’m going to go up into the woods and rent a cabin for two or three weeks. I need some time to recharge my batteries. I’ll only give my phone number to my wife and I’ll just take some time to relax because even though I’m at home it’s not like I can relax. The phone starts ringing at like 10AM and it doesn’t stop until about 11PM. I have my office here and Iced Earth also practice here at my house in the basement. So it will be nice to get away from it all for a few weeks and return focused back on doing Iced Earth.
When you were writing for D&W, you basically said it was what came to you naturally. Were there any guidelines or things that you wrote that you thought that could not be used in Iced Earth?
Well no. When I write, probably 60% of what I come up with can’t be used because it’s no good. That stuff doesn’t even go to tape. When I write something and I like it I’ll use it whether it be writing for Demons & Wizards or Iced Earth. This is who I am and no matter if I was writing for Iced Earth or for Bruce Dickinson or Dio this is the kind of music I’d write.
Why have you been talking to Dio about doing something?
Not Dio, that was just an example but who knows one day it could happen but I have spoken to Bruce Dickinson.
Yeah I’ve read something about that.
Yeah I spoke with him just before the Maiden reunion. Now that Maiden have reunited he is very busy with that as am I with Demons & Wizards and the upcoming Iced Earth CD. But in a couple of years we may be able to collaborate on something. I love Bruce Dickinson and think he is one of the best front men there are.
Would you like more commercial success?
If that means selling more albums then yes. I think we still have a long way to go and think we can do much better. Considering that there are 300 million people in the US and that we sold about 35,000 CD’s for the last album…that’s just lame. In a country of this size we should be able to sell 300-400 thousand CD’s. We are doing very good in Europe and of course in Greece where Demons and Wizards debuted at #1 and also decently ranked in Germany and in Sweden. However, if we get more commercial success I want it to be on my terms. We will not change or sell out or write songs for a certain market.
That kinda reminds me of the liner notes inside of “Days of Purgatory” with metal being a way of life and with you saying we don’t care if it’s cool or not cool – that kind of attitude.
We still have this attitude and if I have to contend myself with staying at the level of commercial success that we are at right now then I can live with that but there are still so many people right here in the US who still haven’t even heard of Iced Earth. This attitude is also one of the reasons why I liked Maiden so much – they came from a time when punk was the thing and they played their own thing and did it their way and achieved success on their own terms. I’ve liked them since I was like 14 years old and it was this that attracted me to them at that time.
So what about the tour for Maiden in 2000
A lot of people ask me about this because they know I am such a fan of Maiden and yes I’d love to open for Maiden. It’s not always that easy though because fans don’t realize that you have to buy your way onto a tour like that. It’s not as simple as just saying “yeah let’s open for Maiden.” That would be like a dream come true to open for them but there are a lot of bands who would love to be on that tour. We will try but I don’t know what will happen. It’s like that for any of the big bands like Kiss, Metallica or Maiden. They will look at how many CD’s you’ve sold here in the US and since we’ve sold about 35,000 on the last one then some type of buy-in will be needed and it’s not a small amount of money. If we were selling 300-400 thousand CD’s then it would be a little easier. That’s just the way it is. I’d love to do it. Even though Maiden’s last few albums haven’t been what I’ve hoped they would be I’ve looked up to Steve Harris for so long.
Why Steve Harris, considering he’s the bassist?
Well Steve has been the band leader and has written all the songs in Maiden that to me are classic maiden. Not the popular stuff like “2 Minutes to midnight” but stuff like “The Trooper”, “To Tame a Land”, and “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” – that’s the shit I love. Some people look at the singer as being the band leader but it’s not always that way. Sure, Steve has made some decisions in the past that I don’t think were for the best and their last two CD’s haven’t been up to par with the other material. Then again, some of Bruce Dickinson’s solo stuff wasn’t much to my liking either except for his last two solo CD’s and I think that has more to do with Roy Z than anything else.
I guess you have pretty high hopes for the Maiden reunion album then obviously?
Yes. It’s all a matter of songwriting. You can put together the world’s best guitar player and the best singer but if they can’t write a good song then it’s going to suck. Good song-writing is the key. I just hope that with the original members back that the chemistry will also return and that they can write something that is as good as their earlier material.
So back to D&W – Jim Morris plays some of the leads on the CD…It didn’t say what he played so I was just wondering what the percentage breakdown would be between what he and you did.
Well I play the melody lines and things like that. If you consider leads to be just the solos then Jim did it all. Jim is an excellent player. He’s one of those guys that just plays from the hip and he’s so much fun to just watch play. He can improvise really well and he has great feeling and a bluesy feel.
Did he help with any of the arranging of the songs or was all that done ahead of time?
Most of it was written and we knew what we wanted before we hired him to play the leads. Some minor things may have been changed. It’s amazing what you can do with technology now. With your PC you can cut and paste one whole section of a song into another to see what it sounds like and if you don’t like it you can just remove it. Jim is a great producer and knows how to properly record a metal band. It’s not like a Brittany Spears album (laughs). In the metal world you need someone who knows how to do it properly.
Well it’s only the metal world that matters!!
What was it like to loosen up some of the control for D&W for the vocals? I know you have a big hand in the vocal melodies and lyrics for Iced Earth.
Hansi did an excellent job, as I knew he would. It was very relaxing and less pressure on me to let Hansi take care of this. This is how I wanted it from the beginning. I wanted it to be more 50/50. Hansi has a lot of experience and I knew I could rely on him to write. It’s not very often that you can find someone who can write and perform and Hansi can do both well. In Iced Earth I write most of the vocal lines and the lyrics because Matt is more of a performer. To me he is one of the best performers that there is today. He does write but it’s not his strong point, performing is. It’s the same with guitarists, some of them can write excellent songs but are not performers while others are excellent performers and do not write. Some of the stuff Matt wrote on “Something Wicked…” was used and some of it like a chorus or two we changed in the studio because when Jim heard it he thought it wasn’t as happening as it could of been and it didn’t sound like it was the chorus. Matt still has a way to go but he’s developing his skills and like I said his strong point is performing. That’s like the kind of stuff that real performers are made of, the ones that are open and willing to try. They don’t get all big-headed and egotistical and stuff. That’s Matt’s strength. The writing side – that’s not really his strength but that’s ok there’s nothing wrong with that you know, it’s just as long as we can keep it together and I can provide those parts for the majority of the records then we’re going to be fine.
So how has the search for a drummer for Iced Earth been going?
We got one!!! Just as of Sunday (Feb.27th). I haven’t even told anybody yet, you’re the first to know. I didn’t even tell my webmaster yet, I was going to send him an e-mail tonight. His (the new drummer) name is Richard Christy.
That name sounds familiar…
He plays with Death and Control Denied.
Yeah that’s right!
He’s gonna stay in those bands too and we’re gonna work with his schedule. He’s gonna be playing drums for Demons & Wizards live and he’ll be doing the next Iced Earth record and our tours as well. He’s got a busy schedule but we’re going to try and work it out. It may come to a point where he has to make a decision some day. If the band grows and we get to the point where I want to get then obviously he’d have to make a decision but at this point I think he can work both bands. So yeah, he’s killer. I knew it in five minutes as soon as he started playing.
The full band jammed with him or just you?
Yeah just me and Matt was here as well. That’s the most important thing, that we lock up, with my picking patterns and stuff. It’s really kind of the trademark of the band but it’s also what makes it tight and I have to be the one to lock with the drummer first. Since we haven’t played together it would of been distracting to have the fact that me and Jimmy and Larry haven’t played together in the last four or five months that we would of been kinda sloppy and off from each other and that always takes a few hours of rehearsal to get back in the groove. I just wanted me and Richard and if we lock up it’s all good. He was amazing. He came in and in just five minutes I knew it. I had given him some pretty difficult stuff to learn.
Iced Earth stuff?
Thinking back now to “Something Wicked…” – Do you think it made as many in-roads into the US as you had hoped it would, or was it just more of the same? Do you think you still have a lot to do?
Hell yeah, we got a long way to go. You mean in terms of sales and success?
Just in terms of people recognizing who you are finally – did it do a lot more for you than previous albums?
Well yeah, it was worked more so it did increase and we were also finally able to get out and finally tour. That’s the thing probably a lot of people don’t understand. When we first signed with Century Media the office was a joke out there. In the early years it was an absolute joke. It’s just in the last few years have they become a respectable label over here and that they’ve stated to push the band at all. From the standpoint that, yeah I’m happy that it went forward and that more people are aware, but I’m not at all satisfied with where we are at. The main reason that it grew was that we finally got a booking agent that believed in the band enough to start booking us around the mid-west USA which is why I relocated the band up here and everything. So, all these steps were taken, and the fact that we went out and did headline tours in the mid-west and made it grow so we could go from New York to California – being our own crew, driving ourselves and getting paid 200-300 bucks a night – that’s the reason why it grew more. People finally started seeing us and they’d go away talking about it and Century Media did some decent advertising but they dropped tour support and they fucked up on the advertising on the last American tour we did and I just said “you know…fuck it, we’re not going to tour the States again.” At that point I just said I was going to get into the studio, get another record done and I’m done with you people. So basically this is our last album Century Media unless they come up with a marketing plan that is going to show that they are as committed as I am at making this thing a success. If they are are not, then I will find somebody that is.
Was it the band’s or the label’s decision to release Alive In Athens as three CD’s in Europe and two over here?
It was my decision to release it as a three CD set but it was their decision to release just the two here unfortunately. They did that because of pressure from their distributor saying that they though it just wouldn’t be successful enough and it was too expensive, too big, and blah blah blah… I don’t understand why. If I would of had it my way, the American kids would of had the same thing. That part of it was their decision and I hate that shit. I think that every kid worldwide should be able to get the same thing. One of the things the REALLY annoys me about Japan is they always want extra tracks. It’s like – fuck why should you get extra tracks?? Well the reason why is because they loose a lot of sales to importers and they can rarely get an album out on – you know if you want to have a worldwide release, it’s very hard for the Japanese to make that happen. They take longer than anybody else does in the world to get prepared for a release. It’s just fucking really annoying. I’ve always tried to fight that part of it but we had to give in with “Something Wicked…” and we put a live track from “Stormrider” from the Waken festival and I almost in some ways think it’s a better live version than what is on the album. But anyway, we had to give into them because they said they were going to commit more if we did that – which turned out to be a joke also. I mean, this is a cut-throat business dude, no matter how you look at it…it’s just brutal.
Yeah, it must take a lot to put up with a lot of shit.
Yeah it does. I have to deal with this shit day in and day out.
It can be hard enough to just be in a band and be able to work together with different people to begin with. That sometimes can be difficult enough.
Yeah, there’s a lot of things that go on. It’s a lot of pressure and stress. You know when I was a young kid and I saw Kiss when I was 11 years old and said “I gotta do that!” I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It’s what I want to do, it’s what I have to do because I have to get that shit out – that intensity and those emotions – the only way I can do that is through music. It keeps me going.
Was a video made for the Alive in Athens shows because I remember seeing some real video clips on your website from the show…so I was wondering what was recorded.
Yeah we filmed both nights. We’re going to do some kind of a live video thing but I think what I’d like to do is make it more like a band history and more than just a live video because the stage was not really huge that we played on and the show was limited – we were not allowed to use fire because of the place were in. I think just taking 8 or 10 of the best songs form that show and putting them on a video would be cool. But I think what would be more interesting to the fans would be to see where the band came from and have interviews with a lot of people that are in the band, past and present, and just a history thing. I have footage of us playing in clubs in the mid-80’s! It would be cool to show that kind of stuff and show what we’ve grown into and to show stuff from the first Iced Earth and Blind Guardian tour…behind the scenes stuff so that people can get to know the band and what we are really all about instead of just putting out a concert.
Iced Earth, to my knowledge, haven’t done any videos for TV, at least I haven’t seen anything…am I correct or have you done a video?
Well they did a video for “Melancholy” from the Waken festival but it’s just a live video synched up to the studio song. It wasn’t a video with any kind of a theme or anything, it’s just us jamming live. It’s not very good, it’s ok, it was the first one we’ve did. We’ve never been into that man…because I don’t believe in it to the point of – I know not many people are going to play it. Here in the states some of the local cable access companies where guys have their own metal shows – they probably would, but it takes a lot of money to do a video properly. It’s not that I am against it but I would rather see that money used for other ways of promotion to push a band like Iced Earth. We are a live band, we always have been. It’s just hard for me to justify spending that kind of money when I know that it’s not going to get played. If MTV would bring back HeadBanger’s Ball and they would play it I’d say “yeah lets do it.” But the chances of that are slim to none.
Up here in Canada we have MuchMusic and they have a show called “Loud.” They play “hard music” I guess you could call it and they throw in some of what I’d call METAL (not enough obviously) but I’m sure they’d have no objection to playing something by Iced Earth. I think in the 80’s videos were more of a way for getting into bands, for myself anyway, but in the past 5 or so years I couldn’t be bothered with videos…you can get into bands now by checking them out on the net.
Right, because I mean back in the 80’s they were playing metal and that’s really what made MTV what it was anyway – the new wave stuff from Britain and then the rock and heavy metal videos that they played. That’s what MTV’s original foundation was. It’s just turned to shit now. But we may end up doing one man…I would rather somehow try to do something that is reasonable and really shows what we are about. Not some artsy fartsy kind of video…I dunno man, it’s not my thing, it’s one thing that I am just not into and I don’t really know that I could be.
So besides being 100% METAL, what can you tell me about the new Iced Earth stuff? How do you think it will sound based on some of the riffs you’ve been coming up with and is it much of a departure from “Something Wicked…”?
Yeah it’s going to have different elements I’m sure. We were going to extend the “Something Wicked…” storyline and make a concept album but because this is our last album with Century Media and because that this whole thing has the potential to be really big, because I’m going to be putting out my own comic book also and I want it to be simultaneously released with the album when the story comes out. It’s going to be the same artist that did “Alive in Athens” and the Demons & Wizards cover. Those guys are ready to go now, so it’s going to be top notch shit. But I don’t want to do the tremendous amount of work that its going to take to do that, and then have Century Media drop the ball again. That’s why I’m putting that on hold. Not that we are going to make this musically any less, we’re still gonna kick ass with the record, but the theme is going to be like a monster theme – a horror kind of a thing which really goes back to the early roots of Purgatory and stuff. I had an idea to put out an EP a few years ago that was based on the classic monster stories like Dracula and Frankenstein, the Wolfman – you know all these different type of characters and try and capture that vibe in the music. So we’re going to go with that and basically the whole album will be based on that kind of vibe and on those themes. It will be the same artist for the artwork and we’re going to do some really cool graphics. I’ve got songs right now that fit that for sure. I think that musically the biggest difference is I’m going to be going for more extremes like when we get into the mellow atmospheric stuff I’m going to make it more atmospheric, more Pink Floyd-like maybe and then into the heavy brutal Iced Earth stuff. That’s one thing that I’m thinking now that I’m going to try and shoot for, to have a lot of dynamics on the album. We do on “Some Wicked…” for sure but I want to mess around with it a little bit more and take the extremes further so that the emotions are so strong when they hit you. Whether it’s really lows, or depressed sad parts, to full on rage and anger, to whatever. So that’s what I’m trying to do differently with this album. I want the production to be heavier also. It’s always been a problem, ever since the first album to capture what Iced Earth is really like in the studio.
So you weren’t completely happy with the sound on “Something Wicked…”? I thought it was amazing.
Well I am, it’s a good sounding record no doubt but it’s just really difficult. We’ve been told this a lot, all the bands that we tour with, especially the Guardians. I think they are better live then they have ever sounded on CD and they’ve said that since our first album until now. It has a lot to do with the fact that you are standing there looking at the band and it’s live and the lights are going and the guys are jamming going off and that’s one of the things that’s really hard to capture in a studio – you almost can’t. I just wan to experiment with a bit of different sounds – bass guitar sounds and drum sounds. My rhythm guitar sound is kind of a trademark sound and I’m happy with that but I’ve got some different amplifiers, different guitars now and different gear that I want to mess around with. So we’ll try some stuff like that.
That’s one of my favorite things about your guitar playing is the sound. It’s just like super crunch and it just screams out METAL!!!!!! It’s totally recognizable, like on Demons & Wizards, after the intro and “Heaven Denies” comes in with the staccato riffing…that’s awesome, that’s one of my favorite things that you do when you’re playing…I totally get off on it.
Thanks man, that’s cool! The amplifier that I use is handmade by a guy in Germany and I’m the only one that’s got that. I did the first two albums with just a standard Marshall and production on the first two albums is just hideous anyway. But fuck you gotta figure we had $8000 for our first album and $15,000 for “Stormrider. ” On the first one we basically went in and recorded and mixed the whole thing in a week – that’s nothing man, it’s not much time. And of course we didn’t have the experience then that we have now. But with this amp…when the guy heard me play on a radio station in Nuremberg he just kind of freaked out on my style. He makes about 12 amplifiers a year. It’s a really small company, he’s very detailed and he just said that he wanted to design an amp for me. I told him what I didn’t like about my sound and we went back and forth and we finally got it and I’m really happy with my amp.
Do you use those live, or just in the studio?
I use them live too.
Final question – I’m just curious about what kind of music you’ve been spinning lately and listening to and getting into or whatever…
I’ve been listening to a lot of Floyd, a lot of old Blue Oyster Cult stuff. I just don’t listen to music that much man. Usually, when I do, it’s the old stuff that I grew up with. I don’t listen to new stuff and I don’t go looking and part of that is because of the time situation. When I do have downtime and time to myself it’s kind of like the last thing I want to do is listen to music because that’s the business I’m in. So I like to get away from that. But when I’m just out cruising around or driving or whatever I listen to the old stuff…that’s Maiden and Priest, Sabbath and Kiss and AC/DC and whatever…all that shit. Lately, just in the last few days it’s been a lot of Floyd and Blue Oyster Cult and some Sabbath, that’s probably about it really.
Ozzy Sabbath or Dio Sabbath, or is it all the same?
I like both. I’ve always been a fan of both. I remember growing up man there would always be people going like “Ozzy rules, Dio drools” and all this stupid shit they were saying. There was like this war between the two. I’ve liked both always, I grew up listening to Sabbath as far back as I can remember. When I was three years old, because of my older sister, I was exposed to “Paranoid” and “Master of Reality.” Those albums had a huge impact on me at an early age and I still listen to them and still think it’s some of the heaviest, best shit ever. But I love fucking “Heaven and Hell” and “Mob Rules” as well. I like all that shit!!
Well man thanks for your time, it’s been great to talk with you. Good luck with the next with the next Iced Earth and I hope you have a nice break at the cabin and re-charge those batteries!
I appreciate it man and it’s time to do that. Thanks for your support.