INTERVIEW BY ARTO LEHTINEN AND MARKO SYRJALA
Iced Earth, led by mastermind guitarist Jon Schaffer has gone thru several difficult periods but always survived as a winner. When the band’s longtime singer Matt Barlow announced his retirement from Iced Earth again, fans were entirely stunned. Last summer, the band did a farewell tour with Barlow, and after that, the new singer Stu Block stepped in. Block was recruited from the Canadian band Into Eternity. The new Iced Earth album DYSTOPIA literally blew fans away by Stu Block’s skills to sing such a varied register. In general, DYSTOPIA presented a more aggressive and still melodic Iced Earth. Before the show, Metal-Rules.com had an utter pleasant task to interview Jon Schaffer.
BEING ON THE ROAD
So you are coming from Moscow?
Yeah, we got in last night.
Did you travel all night from Moscow to Helsinki?
Well, no, we flew. We traveled in the day. That’s the thing, man. It’s like every day off has been a travel day. So it’s really intense drives. We had ten shows right in a row before the travel day to Moscow, and it was through Eastern Europe. The roads were terrible, and it was a 12 or 15 hour drove some them. It was tough to sleep.
Regarding opening bands, why did White Wizard have to leave the whole tour?
I mean, they missed like three shows. They had issues. Financially I think they were hoping that their merchandise would have sold better to help support the tour, and it wasn’t.
THE UNIT AS THE BAND
This is the third time we are doing an interview with you, and the funny thing is that every time you have had a new singer and every time you have said that “This is the best line-up ever.” So what’s the difference now?
Well, the difference now is the band is actually a band. It’s not just me and a project. The guys in the band, Brent’s been in for a long time, but Troy has been there for about four years now, and Freddie has been in for about three years, I guess. So the core of it is really cool, and with Stu coming on, it’s really cool. He is bringing a young, youthful energy to the band that is positive energy. That’s really a very good thing. It’s good for chemistry. The chemistry between the five of us is a killer.
This current year has been really interesting and heavy for you in many ways. So many things have happened for you personally and in the band as well. How do you keep carrying on?
I’m probably in the best shape that I have been physically and mentally for a long time until I try to take care of myself and keep pushing forward. And like I said, it’s the guys around me that are really helping this whole thing too. It’s a team effort. This band is going to be together for a long time. This is a killer line-up. I know we have got a great group of guys here. No other agendas are going on with any of the members. Everyone is proud to be here and wants to be here, and is happy. We have got a great crew. The people behind the scenes that nobody ever meets, they are great. It’s cool.
You have been on tour with this new line-up for a couple of months by now. How is everything going so far?
It’s a killer. I mean, this is the best chemistry this band has ever had since the beginning. It’s really we’re like a band of brothers.
It is like a unit?
Yeah, it’s really cool. We’re like brothers. We look out for each other, and it is a very cool thing. It’s good. Stu fits in great from every angle; musically, he’s a killer frontman, and just as a person, he’s awesome. So we’re having a perfect time, even though we’re working hard. We’re having a good time.
FROM MATT BARLOW TO STU BLOCK
How did you actually find Stu Block as there are different stories like you noticed him when Into Eternity opened for Iced Earth, and otherwise Century Media recommended him for the job?
Yeah, it was Century Media. They did open for us, but I never watched their shows. I didn’t really pay attention to the band. I did hear Stu warm-up backstage, and we talked and stuff, but I never watched them live. I remember hearing them wail away back there, and I thought this kid has got a pretty impressive range. But there was never anything, and it was pretty much out of my mind until Robert from Century Media told me that he knew early on what was going on with Matt. He said you ought to check this kid out. He’s really awesome. We watched a couple of videos, and then looking into his eyes is exactly what Iced Earth is about. It’s just. I don’t know about his voice because he was so very different. What I did know is that he has a huge range. And if somebody can make that many sounds with their voice, most likely they will be able to do what I needed to do and Iced Earth. I got him out for an audition and got him behind a microphone, and we just instantly worked well together. He was very easy to produce, just like Matt was. There was no ego or bullshit, just willingness to try everything. And it just really worked. Within half an hour, we knew he was the guy, and we had been checking out some other singers, but after I got Stu behind the mic, there was no need to go any further. I was like, man. This is it. And we wrote “End of Innocence” together quickly. It was cool.
Do you think you needed some kind of kick from the new guy to bring the new, fresh energy to the band?
I think the spirit behind the album would have been the same regardless of what I call my awakening, and I did the Sons of Liberty thing. That whole experience made me way more positive about Iced Earth and everything in general. So that was the biggest thing that really re-ignited. Iced Earth really became a burden in the last ten years. It was a shitload of work, and I wasn’t satisfied with where things were headed, and there was a lot of turmoil business-wise, behind the scenes stuff that people didn’t know anything about. So it’s just that whole awakening experience reignited my passion for Iced Earth, and I looked at it as a positive thing again. It had become a very negative thing in my life for a long time, so it was one of those things that was a big deal. Obviously, if I’m not in the game, then there is no game. That’s just the way it works. My head and my spirit have to be there for this to push on to where it needs to, and Stu coming into it – just his personality and who he is, it makes it more fun. So that’s what’s cool. We’re actually having a lot of fun. I haven’t had a lot of fun on tour since the Blind Guardian tour until this tour. It’s hard to be doing this if the chemistry in the band isn’t really cool. I got the new management, for about 3-and-a-half years now and he has got my back, and I love him. It’s a family, and we are working together to get shit done, so it’s cool.
How much did you have to show or teach him to sing different styles because originally, he was doing a different style vocal?
That was the thing that I knew right away, that he let me produce him. As soon as we started, when he came to audition, I could produce this kid. And he has got all these abilities he didn’t use before, that’s all. And it’s just a matter of talking; you have got to be able to communicate well. He was a pleasure to produce. And by the time we had done the compositions, Jim Morris came into it and had the demos done. Then he takes it to another level from a more technical standpoint and that kind of thing. We both love producing Stu. He just makes it fun and easy, and it’s all about communicating when you are working with singers to get the most out of them and keep them inspired and motivated and not burn them out at the same time. You have to know and start to learn the guy’s limitations, and you can start to hear when he is wearing out. And you stop. You get started the next day again.
So he won’t sing like the death metal style in Iced Earth?
No, but he will do it if I ask him too, and we did use that voice in a couple of parts of the album in a low mix, you know. But we have done that anyway, and if you listen to a lot of records, it is there, so not really death metal, but it is a texture that I like to use to make a certain dynamic happen in the song.
How familiar was he with Iced Earth before this gig?
He has been a fan of BURNT OFFERINGS since he was a kid. He is ten years younger than me.
Born in 78?
Speaking a little bit more about Matt. I saw that Barlow farewell tour show at Swedenrock last summer. It was great, and I think it was a gift for the fans in a way. At what point did he say he wanted to quit and which point after that did you decide to tell the people that this was going to end, and you decided to carry on and do the final tour?
It was early, and I don’t remember the date. I don’t know that it really matters. We had a feeling because Matt came back under the condition that it would be a part-time thing. I really was kind of over Iced Earth at that time, and I just was like, whatever, we will do it as a hobby. That’s cool by me, and I have other stuff I want to do, but then I took a vacation, and I had my awakening happen, and my perspective changed completely on just about everything. When Matt returned, the financial collapse hadn’t happened yet, and the music industry was changing. We knew it was coming, but it really, in the last few years, has crashed. I mean, you have got labels going out of business, and distributors and retailers all over the United States are closing down. Big corporate chains like Best Buy, which used to have 15 rows of CDs, now have two. So it’s changing. And because of that, if we’re going to exist, we have to work. And we actually have to be, and I really want to do this. I want the band to be able to go where it’s never gone before, and the only way we can make that happen is actually to get out and do it. So I mean, it’s not about money for Matt. Matt could make a lot more money in Iced Earth than he can as a cop; it’s about his career and family. And I support that 100%. He’s my bro. It’s cool, and we’ll probably make music together again, I’m sure, someday, but it’s not going to be Iced Earth. It will be like a project thing.
We did an interview in Copenhagen a few years ago, and when we spoke with Matt, he said that he wasn’t happy to be on tour and that’s a problem all the time. So when he returned to the band, was the 100% full for Iced Earth, or was it more like a project for him?
It was a hobby for him. He loves music, but not enough to want to do it for a living. And it requires a lot of time away from your family, man. And I know that. It’s not a fun thing, but this is what I do. I don’t have any desire to make any other career. This has been in my spirit since the beginning practically, so it’s just what I am. So if I am going to stay going, then I am committed to the band.
When the final show was over, was that kind of the end of a chapter?
Absolutely but it was a great way at Wacken to send Matt off and say goodbye to the fans. We had a big party afterward. It’s cool. Obviously, he is my family, so we’re in contact. But the guys in the band are still in contact with Matt, and everybody is friends, so it is all cool.
Matt Barlow in Swedenrock 2011
CREATING DYSTOPIA MATERIAL
When did you start writing the new material for DYSTOPIA?
No, I started writing and probably really hitting it in January or February, I think. It was after the 70,000 tons of metal is when I got really serious about it. We knew then what Matt’s decision was going to be, so it was around that time that things were changing. Things were going on behind the scenes, and then Matt made his final decision because we allowed him to come back in and really commit and thought about it, and it was a difficult decision for him for sure. He makes love music, and he loves Iced Earth, and we’re like a family. We legally are family, but it’s also because he is a great father, and he loves his kids and doesn’t want to be away. And he knows what we’re doing. It’s like when I said, game on, I’m back. It’s time, and if we’re going to do this, we have got to do it. We have got to work and get out there. I want to go into territories that we have never played before, and Matt knows when I say something, I mean it, so he really was like, “Do I want to be away for 10 months”?
When you started creating those new songs, you had no idea what kind of song or voice would do these songs?
No, but I don’t really write that way anyway. When I start putting together musical arrangements, it really depends. The writing thing can happen in many different ways, and it can start with a lyrical title or a bass guitar part or whatever, and then I start building it and making the arrangements. But Stu came into it, and we immediately got to work. He and I already had the musical arrangements, and I was working on a few songs while he was there, but as far as the lyric part and the vocal melodies, we did that together. That was really cool because it is a good asset, and it helps me and takes some of the weight off of my shoulders to have somebody like Stu who can come up with great hook melodies and work on that. I do that two to have two guys that can do, it is a strong thing, and we’re just getting started, that’s the cool thing. As soon as he came into the band, we were like game on, right to work. We spent probably two or three months together in my studio. He flew in and out a few times, but I would say I was really hitting it hard for three or four months of actual composing.
You have recorded every Iced Earth album with the Morris brothers. Tim Morris has been responsible for most of the Iced Earth albums, but when you started the new era with Stu Block, did you consider recording an album with another producer and in another studio?
The last several albums have been done mostly in my studio, except this one, because I actually sold my studio. I sold the building. I didn’t sell my gear, and I will have another one again at some point. But besides that, having to record and do the European festivals was like I needed one place to go. But I don’t have any desire to work with anybody else. Jim is family, so if I wasn’t satisfied with our records, then I would say let’s go somewhere else, but we work killer together and fast. We get a lot of shit done, and the chemistry is there, which matters to me. He is the godfather of my daughter, so we’re really close.
The Morris brothers are best known for working with several death metal bands.
But they do everything. Whatever they record music, that’s just what they do. They do classical and big band and whatever. They are just – Jim is just good enough of a musician and an engineer that he can tackle anything and make it sound killer, like whatever.
I have looked at your lyrics and your fantasy world because you have a big imagination. You have this WICKED saga, and you have worked ways to get inspiration, but in general, with this new album, I guess you watched horror movies to get inspiration, and I guess Stu wrote some lyrics for the new album as well. What kind of movies are inspirations for you?
Not really horror movies, but dystopian movies. Like “V for Vendetta,” I don’t know if you have seen that. “Dark City” was one, and that is more science fiction like I guess. Equilibrium was another movie that we wrote about. But that was the whole theme of the album, dystopian. I read a lot of books that are very dystopian and, unfortunately, very true. It’s disturbing stuff that is happening in the world with our governments, and this whole thing that is going on is pretty fucked up, really. So basically, the Sons of Liberty message is in the Iced Earth album, all over it. It’s just more veiled, and the people who are awake figured it out and knew right away.
And Stu wrote the lyrics for “The End of Innocence” because of his mother, right?
Well, he wrote a lot of the lyrics, too, man. He wrote several of the song lyrics on his own. But yeah, that was the first thing that we did together. That was the first song.
CHARTS AND RESPONSE
The new album went to the US chart on the 67th, and it beat the previous one. Does it mean anything to you?
Yeah, it did, but I don’t know what that means anyway, and I don’t really care. It’s number one because the rest is just all bullshit “laughs” That’s important to the labels. To me, I don’t really care. What important to me is did the album kick-ass, and did the fans like it. The rest of it I don’t really care about. It is good and cool, but I think we can go a lot farther than we ever have. And I think we have got the right situation behind the scenes, the management, and the band itself, and we have a great crew. It’s like all that stuff counts.
How much do you have read the album reviews because many magazines have said this is your best effort since the HORROR SHOW?
I have read some. It has been a very positive thing, and I knew when I was writing it that I was back. This is what has been missing for the last decade.
ABOUT CRUCIBLE AND ARMAGEDDON
THE CRUCIBLE OF MAN was some kind of a reunion album with Matt, but it was a little bit disappointing, at least for me as a fan. So how do you like that album now afterward?
That was difficult, yeah, because I lost three of my family members in the year that I was writing FRAMING and CRUCIBLE. By the time I got to work on CRUCIBLE, I had lost my sister, which was the third hit in one year. I was like, fuck. I just couldn’t focus, man. And I was really burned out, and it was really coming to a head right then. So if I listen to the album, I hear arrangement decisions that I would never make normally. And that’s a big deal. A big part of composing is arrangements. So I can tell that, but that’s part of being real and being a human being and having issues behind the scenes. It always reflects in the art, always.
You were supposed to re-record FRAMING ARMAGEDDON with Matt, but what happened with it after all?
Well, we talked about it. We never said we were going to do it. We just said maybe it would happen if SPV wants it to happen, but they went belly up, and you can’t go in and re-record vocals and re-mix a record for free. It’s expensive. And there wasn’t that much of a demand for it. It wasn’t like – besides that, FRAMING ARMAGEDDON is a killer album the way it is, I think. It’s my favorite of the two for sure. And I think Tim did an amazing job on it, so there was no reason to erase what was there. It was just if SPV wants to do something like that for this boxed set idea that they had and then went into insolvency.
Do you have any plans with Demons and Wizards?
No solid plans, but Hansi and I will do Demons and Wizards always. It always a scheduling issue. We could easily throw together an album and make some money, but it’s not about that. We want to do something really cool and special, and we want to write together in person, which requires a lot of time.
You should do a special show or something with that line-up, like having the backup band and him and you sharing the vocals.
Well, you never know what could happen. There is a lot of demand for Demons and Wizards, and we know that.
I found Iced Earth at the beginning of the ’90s on the video collection called “Thrash and Burn.” There was a short report of the Florida metal scene, and you played some kind of show on the video. I wondered what that band was on the videotape. The video also featured Exodus, Nuclear Assault, and so on, and there I picked up Iced Earth, 1991?
Yeah, that’s when the first album came out in 1990, technically.
It was the way I paid attention because Iced Earth sounded different from other bands.
Yeah, we were definitely. Before the death metal scene, the Florida scene had Savatage, Crimson Glory, and Iced Earth, and there was some good melodic metal in the scene with a lot of bands actually, a lot of bands that never got signed. Siren was one of them, Powersurge, and Siren got signed with a German label, though. But there were a lot of melodies, and I don’t know what happened. Suddenly, everyone started doing the death metal thing, and in Florida, it took off, and Florida got famous for that, but there was other melodic stuff.
Speaking about Grimson Glory, what do you think about their rebirth with the new singer?
I haven’t heard it. In fact, I just met John at the Rock Hard festival for the first time, I believe.
It is time to end this discussion, but are there any plans after this year?
Just going home for Christmas and the holidays with the family, we kick back off in January, late January, in North America. And then we are doing South America, Australia, and China.
You are going to places you haven’t been to before?
Yeah. On the Eastern European shows, we played some of those countries before, but I bet there were five or six at least that I had never been to with the band, and then to play in Moscow was really cool. The fans were amazing there. There were only like 500 people, but they were die-hard Iced Earth fans. It was cool.
So you are not worried about getting to China because of the language barrier there?
We will have a translator with us. The promoters will have to provide one to make shit happen.
Thank you for your time, and thanks for the interview.
Iced Earth introduced the new frontman Stu Block in front of the app. 500 enthusiastic metal bangers in Helsinki. The new guy truly proved to be a high-class singer being able to sing extremely high notes and lower parts without losing an inch. In general, Iced Earth was in a furious strike during the whole gig despite the long-distance travel from Moscow. Here is the setlist in Helsinki on the 1st of December 2011.
Slave to the Dark
When the Night Falls
Days of Rage
Watching Over Me
My Own Savior
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