Atheist – Kelly Shaefer

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Atheist – Vocalist Kelly Shaefer

Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen


When talking about a highly technical and innovative Death Metal,  Atheist, – along with Death and Cynic, are one of those bands that broke a bunch of musical boundaries on their way towards the success they gained during the late eighties, and the first half of the ´90s. The band´s catalogue consisted of only three albums, but they all were very unique yet groundbreaking in their own way. They set certain standards for the concept of ´technical Death Metal´. There is no wonder why many consider Atheist´s second album, UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE, as one of the finest Death Metal releases of all time It certainly was that very album where Atheist´s sound was sharply culminated, being a real masterpiece of very ambitiously played, highly dynamic technical Death Metal, with its occasional and cleverly done jazz-tinged parts.

Atheist regrouped in the beginning of 2006 in order to do an exclusive run of both festival and club appearances in Europe this summer. Many people who never got to see Atheist playing live, now have a chance to see them one last time even if a couple of original Atheist members cannot participate on the tour for some obvious reasons (2006 also means 15th Anniversary of Roger’s death), but you can read all about them (and more) from the interview that I recently conducted with the frontman Kelly Shaefer of this mighty Floridian tech-Death Metal group. 

Atheist (2006)

Atheist regrouped in the beginning of 2006 in order to do a bunch of live performances at some European festivals. What actually were the primary reasons to put Atheist together again and start working with playing live again?

Well, the albums have really, really well received and there are a ton of new people exposed to the band and the music so the gigs made themselves available and it was possible for us to pull it off this summer so we took a stab at it. Steve and his new band have been playing and recording and he was really the only one who had not continued to play music for the last 10 years, until 2 years ago, so everyone was into it so we decided to do some euro shows to see how it goes.

Are you somewhat amazed that there has actually been interest towards Atheist as far as these forth-coming live performances are concerned?

Of course we are humbled by the whole thing, the press the reviews and the response to do these shows, it has all been very humbling.

Are you guys handling all these bookings to these festivals gigs by yourselves, or do you have some booking agency behind Atheist that takes care of arranging these gigs for you?

We have an agency called Stagemother that handles all of that, but we are handling everything else with the help of Relapse.

Your first live appearance, after 13 long years, will be happening at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival in Derbyshire in England on 14th of July, and you will share the main stage with such bands as Metal Church, Edguy and Rage. As far as I have understood, you should play just before Metal Church at that day. What kind of pre-feelings or expectations do you overall have about playing there, keeping in your mind you haven´t been on stage with Atheist for many years? Feeling surely very excited, but probably a bit nervous as well?

Well, yes. The thing is… normally you get to sort of warm up on tour and you kick it into gear about a week or so into the tour, and frankly there is no way to prepare and rehearse for what goes down in a live setting so you just have to work out the kinks on the road, but we have no time to do that we are thrown right in front of a shitload of expectations, and sure we are feeling the pressure, especially after Rand was incarcerated just a few weeks ago, that through the whole thing into a different urgency. We had to work in another guitar player and that´s a tall order, Rand simply cannot be duplicated his was/is a phenomenal player, but we have Chris baker doing a smokin´ job in his place, but it makes it that much more difficult to get tight and put on a good show for all the expectations. It’s gonna be interesting to see how it plays out, but thankfully we have the mighty Flynn and Tony Choy which is amazing to watch by itself, shit I am a fan of those guys!

Right after that festival you´ll travel to Italy to play at the Evolution Festival in Brescia on 16th of July. A good company will be provided for you on stage at that particular day by such bands as Death Angel, Moonspell, Armored Saint, Amon Amarth and Saxon who will be the headliners of the last day of the festival. I guess this is your first time ever to play in Italy, so what kind of thoughts do you have in your mind in advance concerning this festival, and overall the whole spirit of Italy as the country is known for its breath-taking landscapes, beautiful, dark women, ´terrible´ wine – and so on?

Really looking forward to that for sure, the fans that have stayed in touch over the years seem very anxious to see it and we are anxious to give it to them, it promises to be a bad ass evening, good food, good metal, how it could it be any better?!!

You have been rehearsing a set of Atheist songs that spans all of your 3 studio albums. However, what I´d like to know is your set going to stay the same from one gig to another, or have you intended to change the songs that you will perform for your audience?

On this particular run of shows it will stay pretty stable. Anyone who has ever tried to play an Atheist tune will tell you its no easy feat, so we have to really only play the rehearsed shit. We cannot just bust out an unrehearsed Atheist tune or it would sound like a fucking trainwreck, ha-ha-ha!! Tony and Steve have a great little surprise jam planned for this round of shows, that should be different each night, and we might switch tunes around in the set but it will be the same tunes for all the shows.

According to your website, you´ve been practicing with the band three times in a week (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Do you already feel that due to these intense rehearsal sessions you have already got completely familiar with the songs how they should be performed live note by note?

Well, you read that wrong (ooops… did I? Sorry! -Luxi), we have had a total of 4 weekends to rehearse this stuff cause we live 500 miles from one another. Me and Tony Choy have to fly up to Atlanta each time we rehearse which is expensive and not nearly as comfortable as rehearsing each week. It has been a challenge I gotta tell you. Even when we were rehearsing this stuff back in the day it was a challenge, they are just really really hard songs to play, and it takes weeks and weeks of steady rehearsal to pull it off so we have had to really step up individually to make it happen with the limited time we have had together, and top that off with the loss of Rand and you got yourself a pretty technical challenge, ha-ha-hah!! But we got it!


Talking about your old stuff a bit more, when you started warming up the old Atheist stuff with this line-up, was your main intention to play the songs exactly the same way (almost note by note), or did you allow some more space for yourself to play these songs with more free hands, but still trying to stay loyal to the original structure of a song?

Well, it´s such a tightly wound group of tunes that there is very little room for improvisation, so we have paid GREAT attention to details, but some of the solos may not be “note for note” due to the loss of Rand, his solos even he had a hard time duplicating note for note, so we let a little pressure go off of that and paid attention to the meat of each of the tunes and we are playing them note for note. It will be a true test come July 14th, it will be time to put up or shut up, and everyone knows I don´t like to shut up so it´s gonna be interesting, ha-hah!!

Did any of your older songs surprise you at least a little bit when jamming with the band how hard and tricky they were to play? What songs were the most difficult ones to remember how they should be played ?

FUCK YEAH…!! They are tricky to the 10th power and with the limited rehearsals we have had to work our asses off, the trickiest being the elements stuff cause there is so much groove compared to the other Atheist records, it´s a totally different style and Steve as you know did not play on that record, so he has to adapt to Josh’s style for those tunes. We remember how they are all played but they are not unlike de- triggering a fucking bomb, you may know how to do it, but “executing” is a different story, it´s a challenge each time we play them.

And “The Psychic Saw” is a tough one, and “Air” and “Fire” have been the toughies, and then of course there is “An Incarnations Dream” which is like shifting gears at 100mph about 15 times, there is SO much in that song, so many little things that most people hear, but do not realize how it´s played, and so we had comb through the details and nuances with the guitar players to get it right, but it´s smoking now!


How did you choose the songs for your live set what you are about to perform on these festival/club gig appearances? I notice there´s like 4 songs taken from your debut album PIECE OF TIME, 5 songs from UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE and 3 songs from ELEMENTS in your set, so it sort of looks like a compromise for most of our eyes?

Yeah, we wanted to tap into each era with respect to U.P. which is a fan favorite as far as albums go, it´s a classic so we wanted to do 5 from that one.

What kind of setback was it for you to realize Randy Burkey – the original guitarist of the band, was forced to bow out of Atheist´s forth-coming live performances due to some legal troubles? How has Chris Baker (also in Gnostic) filled in Randy´s boots from your point of view? Has he brought an extra dose of an energetic vibe into the band on some level?

HUGE… HUGE… HUGE… setback, but Chris has busted his ass to get it as close as he can, and he has done a great job, you guitar players out there know what I mean when I say that Rand is a fucking gifted, unique player, and I will not sit here and bullshit and say that it´s no problem, but it´s been a challenge.

Sonny Carson (Gnostic) will be playing the second guitar in the regrouped Atheist line-up because you have been going through your own battle with tendonitis and carnal tunnel for years already. However, how much do you miss those times when you were shredding with your 6-stringer in the band and giving a good reason for people to headbang their heads off in a live situation?

I still play guitar a lot, but to be honest I had a great time being the just the front man on the 93 tour in Europe, it makes for a better live show. It sucks to be trapped at the mic stand playing guitar, not to mention it was very difficult to play those tunes and sing at the same time. But I love playing guitar don´t get me wrong, but for this is will make the show to watch a lot more fun with someone out from raising hell in front of these crazy ass tunes.

What about a new Atheist album? Is it completely out of question? I bet many old fans of the band have constantly made requests for you about this possibility?

Oh yes, labels have offered deals and people have pleaded but we will not fuck up the legacy of Atheist by trying to cash in, sorry. We know what it can do to a band’s legacy, many have done new albums and fallen short of expectations, and truthfully no matter what we would do it would make half the people angry, they would say “it´s not the same” and they would be correct.

Since the ELEMENTS album, did you ever finish any new Atheist songs with the line-up you had around back then?

No, we wrote “Mineral” the day before we rolled tape on that album so there was no extra anything, it was all we could do to complete that record in the 40 days we had to write and record it. That´s was an amazing feat in itself.

All these 3 Atheist albums were re-issued with some bonus material via Relapse Records in the fall of last year. Are you happy with each of them how they turned out as their own individual pieces as far as overall the packaging, etc. for each of them is concerned? Or were there something in one of them you weren´t completely satisfied with, like something was missing from one or some of them?

I could not be happier with the way the whole thing has been re-introduced to the metal fans, I think Relapse did an extraordinary job on it. They were fans and they treated it like there own and I think it s a great package, and the re-mastered sound is incredible compared to the old versions.

What actually went wrong with the deals of NMG Entertainment and Seasons of Mist from France as these labels were originally supposed to re-issue the whole Atheist back catalogue? I remember NGM Entertainment did re-issue PIECE OF TIME, but why they never re-issued both UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE and ELEMENTS albums as they originally planned to do so? A lack of financial resources, maybe?

I pulled the plug on that because they did not have the infrastructure to properly reissue those records. They had no ties to Death Metal, it was basically my Neurotic people handling it and they did not have the Death Metal world in there sights so we pulled it. And as far as Seasons of Mist goes, they offered a pretty lame deal and we did not feel that they would have treated it with the respect it deserved, but Relapse killed it!

Now when you are thinking of the entire musical impact Atheist has had on several bands, y´know, this kinda technical yet somewhat tricky jazzy-tinged Death Metal approach that you had (or have), I guess it always pleases you enormously when someone mentions Atheist is one of his/her strongest musical inspirations to write music for his/her own band, am I right Kelly – aren´t I?

“Oh no” –question, ha-hah!! It´s the biggest honor you can have as an artist, and we are just blown away that so many have said such nice things, from The Dillinger Escape Plan to Otep to Alarum. I mean, shit those bands are all great and we are again humbled by that.

Steve Flynn´s new band called Gnostic carries out a bit of the musical heritage that Atheist left behind them after the split-up. Do you believe these guys may have a chance to hit it big some day the same way like Atheist did back in the day?

Well yes, so much so that I signed them to my production company Starrfactory, so I will be connecting the dots on a deal for them in early 2007, so all you labels out there take note, they will be monstrously technical, and powerful the new demo they just finished is fucking amazing, the drumming is otherworldly! He has elevated drumming to even higher heights if you can believe that. His feet are way quicker, and his limb independence is SICK! It´s different than Atheist though, but very, very well done!! Watch for it in 2007!!

Also Australian´s Alarum is one of those bands that have definitely been influenced by such bands as Cynic and Atheist. You also jammed and performed “Piece of Time” live with them at the State Theatre in St.Pete, Florida, for not that long time ago. I just saw this live clip from that was taken from the crowd and to me it seemed like you had some helluva time performing that particular song live with those Alarum -guys, didn´you?

Man, we had SUCH good time we were slamming shots and just having a blast!! I thank them for inviting me up to do it, and of course we are very honored to have them include that song in there set, they did a fine job, and they are the very coolest guys to boot so it was a fun time. It´s a shame the audio is not as great as it was in the theatre.

You also auditioned for Velvet Revolver back in 2002, ands were really close to become their next singer. Could you tell to our readers what happened?

I sent Slash some stuff when they were looking for singers and he really liked my Neurotica –voice, not my Atheist voice, ha-ha!! But I think diversity is key and I have always tried to be able to adapt to many styles of music as a challenge to myself, and anyways he sent me 3 tunes and I wrote some shit and sent it back and they loved it and invited me out to LA to jam with them so I went out and we wrote 4 tunes and it came down to me, Travis Meeks from days of the new, and Sebastian from Skidrow, and then Scott Weiland left STP and those guys were friends and of course they were gonna get a lot more press and attention if they had him instead of me so it went down like that, but I treasure the time I had with those guys it was pretty crazy for a Death Metal guy like me to be jamming with fucking 3/4 of GNR, something to tell the kids later in life. They are all great guys and I am happy for them and their success.

Just a couple of last questions about Atheist´s past before we are finished. I´d like to know what´s actually your own personal favorite out of all 3 Atheist albums that you made in your career and why exactly?

UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE is my favorite because it is the quintessectial Atheist record, and the final work by Roger Patterson, we were just hitting on all cylinders at that point in our career. Lyrically it´s got great depth and the technicality of it all is bliss – not to mention the drumming on it… whew!! That´s some killa metal!!

One question about Roger Patterson who tragically died in a car accident in 1990 when you guys were on your first US -tour together with the Swedish Doom Metal messiahs Candlemass. Namely I got this one very ´special´ gig poster once when I ordered a couple of “Piece of Time” teeshirts from you back in the day. You played a gig together with Death Angel and Forbidden at the Cuban Club, Tampa, Florida on August 3rd in 1990, so logically I gotta assume you went on the US tour with Candlemass in the fall of ´90 because as you can see from the backside of this gig poster, there´s Roger Patterson´s autograph on it as well as all of your other original Atheist -members autographs on it, too. What kind of reminiscences do you still have from that particular show if any?

I remember that show well because the whole light rig fell on top of the stage prior to the show and they had to reschedule it for a later date which is the date on the flier. We were just confusing people who liked Forbidden and Death Angel because they were Thrash bands so I think aside from people who knew us we were the outcast of just about every bill we ever played on. That autograph is RARE! In fact, none of us have seen another Roger autograph out there, you could fetch big bucks on that one bro!  

I guess that´s all this time, so I wanna sincerely thank you Kelly for this cool opportunity to interview you and talk about both the past – and present times of Atheist. Good luck with your forth-coming festival – and club shows with Atheist and… see ya in Norway, of course! ;o) (Anything else you still would like to add?)

Well, thanks so very much for all the kind words Luxi, and for the coverage of our music we have no words for the appreciation we have for that! We can´t wait to see you all in Europe and rest assured we will be doing as many meet and greets as possible, so make sure you come and say hello while you are at the festivals, and try to tell a friend or 2 about the Atheist music, turn them on to the records, and keep technical metal alive!! Cheers…!!


Atheist (2001)

I contacted Kelly in 2001 already, asking a possibility to do an interview with him about Atheist, kind of bringing these legendary Floridian tech-Death Metal wizards to the attention of the readers for the 2nd time (he was also interviewed in here in 2000 by EvilG); talk about re-issues of the 3 classic Atheist albums and naturally the history of the band as well. For some strange reason, this interview was never finished completely, but either way, we got to talk briefly about the whole re-issue thing, and how things stood basically for them at that time. One interesting thing was that Kelly, Steve and Rand – the three original members of Atheist, were actually working with new stuff which was supposed to be in the vein of the UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE and ELEMENTS albums. And yes, doesn´t that make us all kinda curious why these fellows never finished (!) this new material and got these new songs released in a proper way? A bunch of further questions may rise up out of this fact for sure…


Like many of us so-called ´ol-timers ´ of the ´80s Thrash/Death Metal era know by know, NMG RECORDS will re-issue all the long-lost 3 Atheist albums one by one in a chronological order – off which PIECE OF TIME is already out w/ 6 demo songs on it as a bonus. I guess the main reason for re-releasing them was pretty damn simple after all: There was just this HUGE demand for them as all these albums have been out of print for several years already and it seems to be almost impossible to hunt them down these days unless you´re not willing to pay like $30-$50 for each of them in the auctions like EBAY, f.ex.?

Well, actually NMG will not be re-issuing them anymore, it will now be Seasons of Mist from France who will be doing it, and also a live Atheist record to be released hopefully later this year, and we are still working on a new atheist record for next year, so we hope that people will still be into it enough to check out the new record when it comes out, Seasons of Mist seem like a great label to put these out there and treat them as new releases, cause I believe they still hold weight in today´s metal scene! Actually eBay is what spawned the whole re-issuing thing, I had tried to get copies for myself online and through searching out sources I found that people were paying so much for copies of the discs that I started pursuing avenues to re-issue them. 

Have you kept any records by yourself how many requests you have been receiving from people during these past 5-6 years or so – people asking for these almost mega-rarities to be re-released again; ordered by some understanding label? I´m sure an amount of requests has been pretty damn massive – or how it is, Kelly?

I currently have some copies, but like I said for a while I did not ha-ha-ha!! There were several labels interested in putting these records back out again, but seasons seemed like the best, they seemed most interested in treating like new records, and that´s what I really wanted to happen. Many people only had cassette copies of the 3 records and now they are old and sound like shit, so this will enable people to have freshly re-mastered copies of the Atheist music, and I am stoked about that!!!

Do you have any never-released leftover material left out of any of the recording sessions for PIECE OF TIME, or UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE, or ELEMENTS albums that might be a worth of releasing after putting them through a re-mastering session of some kind?

Yes, actually there are 6 songs from the demo day before PIECE OF TIME that are included on the first re-issue, and they are mastered as well, they are from the ON THEY SLAY demo and from the BEYOND demo they are put there to sort of show the progress we made as a band in a short time, they are far from polished so keep that in mind while listening. We hope to have some more extra tracks for each release to be included on each re-issued record with bonus liner notes about each tune from myself, Steve Flynn and Rand Burkey. It´s a great little package!

As your current situation, I read from “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” magazine just recently that you, Steve Flynn, Rand Burkey – the three original members of Atheist – and the new guys Louis Paleto and Miguel, are putting some new stuff together – being described as a bit into vein of your 2nd album, UNQUESTIONABLE…, as stated on that particular ´zine. Would you be more specific ´bout all this new stuff you have possibly managed to come up with so far. I´m damn curious..!!

Well, we will not be using Migwell and Louis because they are in my other band Neurotica. We are looking for a bass player, that´s amazing of course – and that would speed up the process a lot, but we cannot find Tony Choy right now so the 3 of us are working on stuff independently until we can get together with a bass player, but I assure you it will be in the vein of UNQUESTIONABLE and ELEMENTS more so that PIECE OF TIME, we want to raise the bar of technicality and brutality collectively for the next 10 years and with Steve Flynn’s drumming I know this is very possible, it will be a bit before it will see the light of day, I have just signed a worldwide deal with the WWF’s new label Smackdown Records with Neurotica so I will be out touring with them for the rest of the year and our record will be out in September, so that will keep me busy for a bit, but we will be hooking up as much as we possible can in between all of that, rest assured when it comes out it will be the sickest technicality EVER!

Within what period of time have you laid down all these new tunes exactly? What are the most remarkable – and the most distinct differences between this new stuff and the stuff you´ve done in the past from your own point of view; besides the fact a modern technology obviously provides a better treatment for your fresh songs than it was capable of offering for you like about 10 years ago?

I am afraid I cannot answer that one my friend cause we have not recorded anything as of yet. But yes, there will be a huge difference in the way it is recorded so it will make it a lot easier to listen to for sure, the studios are so much better now than then, that it should make for a really brutal sounding record!!!

So, you´re still going crazy for an utterly technical yet tricky shit from time to time – like it´s as challenging as it has always been for you, correct? How would you define ´a good challenge´ by yourself anyway by your own words? What´s challenging for you personally these days when you´re doing music or something alike connected to making music in general are all concerned?

HELL YEAH, we still love progressive music, but we are not really fans of some of the newer prog metal, for instance I do not like the ´high´ vocals that some of the newer bands are incorporating into there music, I liked Watchtower a lot, but I had a hard time with the vocals, I prefer it to be like brutal witchy type vocals instead of really high singing, technically challenging to us means spending 2 weeks writing a song, we used to spend that time on just a section practicing it over and over until we got it right, we love to break the musical rules that some adhere to, that´s what makes it fun for us, but it still has to be HEAVY!!!! That is only with Atheist, with Neurotica it´s a whole different thing, its all about melody with that band, and really it´s a straight ahead hard rock band, so I can mold into what ever I am feeling at the time, I love to toy with all types of music, but we know exactly where Atheist needs to be in the year 2001, and it will be crazy for sure!!!!





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