INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ AND JARNO HUOVILA
LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Some eighteen years, and another eight albums, since the release of ICED EARTH’s eponymous debut album, it’s still band leader and guitarist Jon Schaffer’s unique vision and rule by iron hand that defines every aspect of the band. After two albums, THE GLORIOUS BURDEN in 2004 and FRAMING ARMAGEDDON in 2007, with Tim “Ripper” Owens of JUDAS PRIEST fame, Jon has again, on the latest album, CRUCIBLE OF MAN in 2008, been rejoined by returning Matt Barlow on vocals. Matt originally appeared on some of the band’s most classic albums, such as BURNT OFFERINGS in 1995, THE DARG SAGA in 1996, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in 1998, and HORROR SHOW in 2001. In addition to his work with ICED EARTH, Jon and his good friend Hansi Kürsch of BLIND GUARDIAN released two albums under the name of DEMONS & WIZARDS. ICED EARTH has currently just finished a co-headlining tour of Europe with SAXON. We had an opportunity to sit down with Jon to catch up about some of his band’s recent developments and learn some interesting things concerning his plans for the future.
You’ve sure got an interesting package on this current tour, with SAXON being a “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” band and ICED EARTH being an American one and sort of representing the next generation of metal. How has the tour been going so far?
It’s been really good. I think the fans of both bands are enjoying themselves, and it just seems to work. There’s enough heavy SAXON stuff, and I think that their newer records are more intense and probably a little more modern metal. I like their recent albums of the last decade or whatever; I think they’ve done some really strong material. It’s a good fit.
Once this tour with SAXON is finished, are there any plans for ICED EARTH to do more shows this year?
Not in Europe. I mean, we may end up doing a festival or two, that’s kind of being talked about now, but we’re not going to do a bunch because we’ve been busy here in Europe in the last three years. We did festivals in 2007 plus the FRAMING ARMAGEDDON tour of Europe and UK with HEAVEN AND HELL, and then we did festivals in 2008, American tour, European tour, you know.
Iced Earth in 2009: Troy Seele, Freddie Vidales, Jon, Matt Barlow, and Brent Smedley
After this tour is done, what is the next thing that you’ll be focusing on?
My immediate plans are to take a well-deserved vacation because it’s been six years since I’ve even taken a week off. I really need it badly, so I’m doing that with my family in April when I get back. I’ve also got to wrap up the production on the [live] DVD that’s going to come out. It’s going to be a kind of collection of a few festivals that we’ve done. It’s going to have Metal Camp on there being kind of the main show, then we have the Rock Hard Festival, and we also have Wacken from 2007, and there’s going to be videos and extras and behind the scenes and all that kind of shit. It’s a real live and very raw kind of a video; it’s going to be cool.
When do you think the DVD will be ready for release?
No, I don’t know a release date yet. I would imagine probably fall this year, but I don’t really know what the record company’s plans are. I have to get it finished, and that’s the main goal when I get back in early March. I’m going to focus on wrapping up all facets of that, like video editing, authoring the DVD, and all that. Once we get that set, I’d imagine they’ll probably want to release it three of four months afterward. But I don’t know about the DVD market because that’s new ground for us. ICED EARTH hasn’t done a DVD yet. ALIVE IN ATHENS [DVD] is sort of an official bootleg. I did not put my stamp on that. I would not have put that out personally. It’s horribly edited and really fucking lame because you’ve only got three cameras. It’s a cool document historically, but it’s not a proper DVD, it was never planned to be, and it was just another way for Century Media to cash in on the continued success of ICED EARTH. They’re always going to do that, but unfortunately, there’s not much I can do about it. The cool thing about this [new DVD] is that, whereas ALIVE IN ATHENS was pretty polished [in the studio], these are live shows and haven’t been doctored; this is the real thing. The best thing for me about ALIVE IN ATHENS was the artwork; I’ve said that for years.
When do you think the work for the next Iced Earth studio album will commence?
Don’t know yet? As I said, my priority right now is to get my head clear because I’m the only one that deals with all of this stuff on a daily basis. The guys in the band come, they do the tour, they go home, do their everyday life, and ICED EARTH happens here [in my head] 24/7, whereas that is not the case with anybody else in the band. Before I make any decisions about any themes or concepts or even what the album direction will be, I have to take a break. The last three and a half years have been really intense since I started writing this SOMETHING WICKED two-part thing. That was a really intense period because I wrote for a year straight and then immediately went into the studio and then on tour, went back in to finish part two and back on tour. It’s been a constant process with no breaks.
So I take it the SOMETHING WICKED saga is now completed?
Once you eventually get back into the studio again, do you imagine it will be for an ICED EARTH record or perhaps another DEMONS & WIZARDS album, or is that project done?
No, DEMONS isn’t done. I think that’s something that Hansi [Kürsch of BLIND GUARDIAN] and I will do for the rest of our lives, but it’s going to be one of those things that we’ll do whenever we can. Things are going on right now musically within me that… time will tell, I don’t know yet. I’m not sure what the very next project is going to be. I’ve got some ideas, but it’s something that I’m kind of keeping under wraps right now.
Rumors had it that there was going to be a movie based on the SOMETHING WICKED concept at some point. Is there any truth to that?
Well, that’s something that’s a long term goal that I’d like to happen around my story. It’s gonna have to start in more of an organic way, which would probably be in a comic book series kind of thing because it needs to be grown sort of like a band is grown. I’m not interested in cashing in on the story, I could probably get with the right people in Hollywood and sell the story for a few million bucks and just walk away from it, but that’s not the way I operate. I wouldn’t want my story to be ruined; I would rather just not do it, actually. So it’s one of those things for me to start slowly. This basic story has been around in my head since 1998 since I wrote the original trilogy that was just the introduction to the story. The SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES record is not a concept album. The only thing related to the story is the last three songs, and that was basically the introduction to what was coming, which is what happened with FRAMING ARMAGEDDON and CRUCIBLE OF MAN. That whole thing has been in here [in his head] for a long time, and it’s been building, and the next step is to build like a comic book series or a graphic novel kind of thing and then if it works, and if people are attracted to it, maybe we can grow into films and that kind of stuff. It’s got the potential to be a cottage industry all of its own; I mean, the storytelling is never-ending in it, which is what makes it great. It literally could be as big, in terms of storytelling, as the STAR TREK or STAR WARS universe because you can take any element of human history and apply the SOMETHING WICKED universe to it. It’s cool; they’re a lot of creativity involved in that. I can see that kind of thing steamrolling into something much bigger than what ICED EARTH has done. If it happens, then great. If it doesn’t, then I’m okay with that too, but I don’t want just to sell the story and let some Hollywood producer fuck it up. That’s not an option for me. I just want to take it slow, and if it’s meant to be, it will, and if it’s not, then that’s fine too. We’ve had fun and done some very cool songs and records based on the story, and at the end of the day, that really what I do.
Since last we saw ICED EARTH (at Sweden Rock 2007), there have been some changes in the band’s lineup, again. The most obvious change is the exit of Tim “Ripper” Owens and the return of Matt Barlow on vocals. How’s that been working out?
Nothing too different, it feels good on stage; this is a good solid lineup. It doesn’t really feel different. It just feels good.
So, having Matt Barlow back in the band now, is it any different from, for example, the 2002 tour for HORROR SHOW?
It’s different in the sense that we’ve gotten older and have kids, we’re fathers now, that’s different. Besides that, it’s not really that different. It’s just what it is, man. ICED EARTH rolls along the way that it always has regardless of who’s singing or who’s in the band. We just move forward.
Going back to the CRUCIBLE OF MAN record, how far into the production did you get before you decided to let Ripper go and get Matt back in the band?
Tim didn’t have anything to do with the record. The writing of all of that stuff was done in the same year period, recording the drums, the rhythm guitar, the bass, and the lead guitars, all that was done in the same period. Then we did the vocals for FRAMING ARMAGEDDON and put that out. Then I came back and wrote the lyrics and the vocal melodies for CRUCIBLE OF MAN, so that was after the FRAMING ARMAGEDDON tour of Europe, I went back into the studio and started working on it. Tim had heard the songs when he was in the studio, but we never did anything with him. We never did any demos or anything for that. He was not involved in that process anyway; I was in the studio for a year by myself writing all that stuff.
So it was a different situation compared to the recording of THE GLORIOUS BURDEN, where Matt had actually begun recording the vocals?
Matt did the whole album; we were mixing THE GLORIOUS BURDEN when I decided to pull the plug on it. The whole album was finished.
Wouldn’t it be cool to let the fans hear that version too eventually, like as a bonus feature or something?
It won’t happen.
What was the reason for re-recording? The original SOMETHING WICKED trilogy for the OVERTURE OF THE WICKED EP and some songs off FRAMING. ARMAGEDDON for the I WALK AMONG YOU EP with different vocalists?
Well, the first was just too reintroduced people to the whole thing. We did it with baritone guitars, and we did it more atmospheric. It’s very cool. It’s fucking awesome, I think. Basically, the thing is that record companies always want singles, and singles are kinds of pain in the ass. I don’t like doing it, and then they want songs that are exclusive to the single. Well, I don’t do throwaway songs, so if I’m going to commit myself to work on a song, I want it to be on the album so that the fans can hear it, not on a single that ten percent of the people actually buy. There’s a lot of bands that just don’t have a specific vision. They just jam and come up with parts and have a producer put the stuff together, and then maybe out of thirty songs, they pick ten that are good. I don’t work that way. I’m not going to start from the ground up on a generic riff and build it into a song if it sucks. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I understand that a lot of people don’t have that kind of clarity or focus, and that’s cool, but that’s just not the way I work, so it’s hard for the label to understand from my standpoint when I say, “I don’t have throwaway stuff, so I don’t wanna do your fucking single!”, but then they push and tell that it’s going to help the record. So I always have to think, “Well, do we do a cover tune, or do we do something else like this, re-recording.” Originally we talked about doing like a medley of the original SOMETHING WICKED trilogy, just shrink it down seven or eight minutes, restructure parts from the original. Then talking about we just thought, “Fuck it! Let’s just redo the whole thing. We’ll make the rhythm section more intense, we’ll use baritones and make it heavier, we’ll add some percussive elements that will be coming in on the FRAMING ARMAGEDDON and CRUCIBLE OF MAN records.”, but the main focus of that OVERTURE OF THE WICKED EP was “Ten Thousand Strong.” So every time we do that, the same thing with the “I Walk Among You,” that song “I Walk Alone” was the main focus of that, but we had to put something else on there, so we had Matt redo a couple of songs from FRAMING ARMAGEDDON vocally. That’s all it is, just a tool, and the single is merely a promotional tool for the label. They’re a lot more trouble than they’re worth for me. As an artist, they’re just a pain in the ass.
The last ICED EARTH recording that Matt appeared on before leaving was the TRIBUTE TO THE GODS covers album. Is there any chance you might do another one of those at some point?
It’s possible. It’s definitely possible. Who knows. It was fun to do that.
Matt Barlow live in Copenhagen in 2009
FRAMING ARMAGEDDON’s cover art is quite similar to the one on SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES record, but it’s not the same artist.
No, it was the tattoo artist, the guy that did my tattoos who did these covers.
Which of the albums covers was the first one done digitally on a computer?
Well, technically, DARK SAGA. They actually start off as pencil drawings, and then they go to the ink, you know black ink, and then it’s scanned into a computer and gets colored.
So who gets to keep all the cool original artwork?
I do. I own all of that. Not the DARK SAGA or DAYS OF PURGATORY though, those were licensed pieces of art. That’s a different thing.
The re-releases of the early albums had different artwork from the originals. What was the reason for that?
Ah, because the old album covers sucked! I loved the version of NIGHT OF THE STORMRIDER that eventually came out, the first version was horrible, and actually, the first couple of versions were horrible. I think they [the record company] just wanted to give the entire catalog a facelift, and I was definitely not against that. Century Media is going to cash in on ICED EARTH forever, so get used to it.
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