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Jon Schaffer – Guitarist and songwriter for Iced Earth and Demons and Wizards

Date: 05/20/05
Interviewer: Rich Catino


Prior to our interview, Jon and I spoke a little bit about a book I had with me called “The Civil War, Battles and Leaders”. Jon paged through this brief, but rather comprehensive, 94 pages about the war and commented on the fact that most of the artwork found in its pages contained some things he would have liked to use for the cover of “The Glorious Burden”. A painting in particular called “Clear the Way” done by Don Troiani, he favored for the Cd’s cover. Jon personally owns of few pieces of this artist’s work in his collection.

1. The title track from the new Demons and Wizards called “Touched by the Crimson King” is about what?

JON: Lyrically that was Hansi (singer for Blind Guardian) basing that on the “Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. I’m not one to comment on it because its something I have never gotten into, I can’t speak intelligently on it because I have never read the stories. It is one of my favorites on the album.

2. Does Hansi ever write the music with you?

JON: Not really, we discuss arrangements a little bit, like we talk about chorus’s and melodies. We wrote three or four songs face to face on the new Demons. The basic songs arrangements I will do and send them to him, Hansi works on the melody and the lyrical concept we kick around together. He develops all the lyrics.

3. When writing music for Demons do you ever write in the style of Blind Guardian?

JON: No, that never enters my mind. The only thing that separates a Demons or an Iced Earth track that I have co written with somebody is that I didn’t come up with the vocal melody. Most of the Iced Earth stuff it all comes to me rather fast and furious, especially if I have a specific theme in mind like with “Gettysburg”, if I have a specific theme then that’s what I write alone just for Iced Earth. If there are things like a music arrangement or a part that sounds cool musically but I can’t hear a melody then I save it for the future for someone else to contribute to it. Maybe that will inspire someone else. That’s basically how I write for either Demons or co write with Iced Earth.

If a person listens to Demons and Wizards and they say, “Well that sounds just like Iced Earth”, then they are not really listening. If you take all of the vocal tracks off a Demons and Wizards song, yeah it’s probably will sound like Iced Earth, but, when it comes to the vocal melody it sounds like Demons and Wizards. Hansi has a challenge writing vocal melodies to my music because when he writes with Blind Guardian, their guitarist Andre, writes the music in a different key than I do. When Hansi writes his vocal melodies for Demons it’s always darker than what you would hear with Blind Guardian. There’s still that majesty thing but it’s darker and more ghostly. Hansi, to me, is like the Freddy Mercury of Metal and nobody sounds like or does what he does, a lot of guys try but he is the master.

He doesn’t write the musical passages of Blind Guardian either, Andre does. What he does comes after, the music always dictates what the vocal melody will do, same thing with the guitar solo. It creates its own monster and most people won’t point that out Demons and Wizards has its own sound. Like “Touched by the Crimson King” has that sort of a Blind Guardian size to it, but musically its nothing like them. You know most people will be superficial and say, “O yeah it has fast double bass and big vocal part that’s Blind Guardian”, and that’s so not correct. Maybe this is something they shouldn’t be listening to if you can’t hear the difference. Yes there are similar elements, but when we put our musical styles together its definitely different.

I have not done that much press yet but I think you are the first person to really pick out and be able to hear what we are doing with the sound of Demons and can distinguish that its neither Iced Earth or Blind Guardian.

4. Tell us about the idea behind the cover’s artwork. It has a comic book approach to the design as opposed to the look of the debut Demons. Any reason for the change in artistic direction?

JON: We didn’t have a specific concept for the cover. The one thing is if you can see the whole cross its one piece of art, the idea was to combine all the elements of the songs into a Scifi, kinda Horror, wasteland thing. There’s a little bit of the Lord of the Rings, an alien creature, there’s the Dark Tower thing, the terror train, the eye of the Crimson King which is similar to the Eye of Sauron from the Rings trilogy.

I wanted to do a song about the Lord of the Rings story but that didn’t come together. “Seize the Day” off the new Demons, was written around the time of the Horror Show period of Iced Earth, and it was going to be an instrumental. I was out riding my motorcycle and had that going through my head and a piece I never put vocals to it. When out riding my Harley along in wide open spaces I had this piece of music going through my head, I knew it wasn’t Metal, kind of folkish. Originally Hansi called it “God Bless the Day”, his idea was to have it about a family in the old west moving west with the big sky and the open land, it had that openness to the song. We were going to have it about the hobbits from the Lord of the Rings as they traveled across the wasteland with the dead in the swampy water. But we went with “Seize the Day” and it still had that vibe, it didn’t fit Horror Show at that time so I’m glad we used it now.

You even got the pyramids on the cover too and “Spacial Architecs” which is one of the bonus tracks, “Lunar Lament” where the moon can be jealous of the sun, its all this artistic shit, HaHa. Not that I’m knocking what I wrote, HaHa, those were my ideas. There’s a lot of different shit on the record. I like the Zepplin thing too, it came out really good. I wasn’t sure if we should have attempted that one.

5. Musically when writing for Demons what do you do differently from what you would do for Iced Earth?

JON: Like I said the only difference is if I hear the vocal melody. If I do then it’s always Iced Earth, unless I do a solo album some day.

6. What does Demons fulfill creatively that Iced Earth does not?

JON: I don’t think there is anything because I write the kind of music I like to write with both bands. Maybe the only thing is that I get to work with Hansi with Demons, that’s a cool thing. He’s not only a business partner but he’s also like a brother to me and has been for many years. I get to work with one of my friends which is very cool, he’s the only real song writing partner that I have ever had. I don’t have hassles working with Hansi, we both pull our own wait. If there is some kind of business to take care of I know that if I am not around Hansi will take care of it.

7. Here in the States major market radio has given little to no support for this genre of Heavy Metal. The Metal community on the other hand, has recognized and embraced bands like Iced Earth and Blind Guardian as the successors to the throne seated by bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Dio.

My question is, what are your thoughts on the media’s lack of may it be recognition, or pure ignorance to your importance to the history and present of Heavy Metal?

JON: Well I think it is a matter but I also think many people don’t know we exist. But then again if we weren’t marketed by a major label corporation then would anyone give a fuck? It’s been the same as long as I have been doing this. We were always the band that never had the big tours and the financial backing but still had the loyal following, that’s what ultimately matters. Obviously we would like to be bigger and sell more records but f that’s not in the cards then that’s ok. At one point that would bother me but not now. Things were different in the industry even when we got signed in 1990. There used to be a time in the 70’s when a label would look at a band as something you would put some money and time into for decades, it’s a career. Now it’s a saturated market and with everyone in every genre, its overkill. If one formula works then that’s what the labels want to market and support, I never gave a fuck about that. Iced Earth is my visual vehicle and that’s all I have ever really concerned myself with. If we always remain a fairly small underground band then I want to make sure I maintain the integrity of the band, that’s the most important thing. If we are going to have 10,000 loyal fans then I want to make sure that they know they will never get a rap metal record or something. Even if we made it really huge at some point I would make sure that Iced Earth remains true to the sound and vision that I have created.

8. Where do you see Iced Earth and Blind Guardian’s places in the history of Heavy Metal?

JON: I hope that we have a significant place, we definitely have made our mark. You have the Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zepplin, Kiss era of the 70’s, to Maiden, Priest, Def Leppard and Dio in the 80’s and then you look at Iced Earth and Blind Guardian in the 90’s. Iced Earth and Blind Guardian started in the mid 80’s and have maintained a level of integrity since we began. Both bands survived when everyone was so down on melodic Metal and the whole grunge thing happened. Even in the underground there was the Death Metal sound that many people were getting into. I see a lot of young kids now getting into this genre of Metal now so finally people are starting to get it and we have made our mark.

9. What is in store for Demons and Iced Earth for the next year?

JON: Demons will shoot a video for the song “Terror Train”. I am not interested in touring right now even though we have been offered to do several festivals. I just had a daughter so I don’t plan on going on the road for the next six months. Hansi is in pre production mode for the new Blind Guardian also and I am starting to get into the train of thought for the next Iced Earth record. We are not sure but it may be the second part to the Something Wicked trilogy, we are talking about this with SPV. The trilogy was only a teaser to what is to come in the next record. Its going to be a two record set if we do this, while I am finishing up the second disc of music we will release the first disc. I will use a full orchestra and it will be a big production with all the bells and whistles.

Iced Earth have been submitting itself to open for bigger bands in the States so if that happens to come along and Metallica calls then everything is on hold and we will go on the road. Going out and continually headlining isn’t smart because you are continually preaching to the choir and you will become redundant by doing that. I don’t want the day to come when people don’t find it special to see Iced Earth anymore because we come around so much.

10. Are you 100% satisfied with the Gettysburg DVD and what did you try to achieve by doing it?

JON: No not 100%, some aspects yes, the visuals I’m about 95%. The audio and the surround I’m about 65%. Its good but I think me missed the boat a little bit. This is the first surround sound mix Jim and I had done so I think it could have been better, I think we over used the rear speakers. I don’t want people to think it’s like a Live DVD concert thing. It’s a walk through the grounds of Gettysburg with commentary by myself and a guide. You get the Gettysburg song accompanied by some graphics, historical pictures, etc. This isn’t the kind of product I’m gonna say Iced Earth fan is going to want to have, its different. I hope it inspires people to do some research on their own into this part of American history. I really wanted to do this because I wanted to get a version of one of my epics done in surround sound.

11. How was your experience going to Gettysburg, Pa, and did you come from that with anything?

JON: I would have never been able to write that epic if I did not go to Gettysburg. I suggest everyone to go there.

12. What have you learned through all your research on American history?

JON: I have learned that we should walk around every fucking day and be thankful for what we have. People are spoiled and don’t realize how lucky we are. .

13. Can you see Demons and Wizards doing a one off show at the ProgPower festival in Atlanta?

JON: I think anything is possible. We did some dates in Europe for the first album and those shows were awesome. If we are going to go through the trouble to do one show then we are going to do more than that. Financially it doesn’t make sense to do one show.

If we tour I’m sure will tour the States since we have already done Europe for Demons. We also want to do a live record and I would prefer to record it in the States. I would love to do it in NY they are such a vocal crowd. When we played the NY show last year with Iced Earth I was sick as a fucking dog, I was puking and shitting, I remember running off stage and puking in the middle of the set, HaHa. It was great show I just wish I felt better. New York became a very special place for me when we were here for the Horror Show tour and it was not long after 9/11at the WWF place, and the power of the people singing the national anthem just hit me. It was as powerful an experience as playing in front of 30,000 people.

14. Is it possible for Blind Guardian and Iced Earth to tour together?

JON: I would love for it to happen and so would Hansi. I think it could work easier say if both bands had an album out around the same time. I know the fans would love it and it would be a great thing for Metal. It’s just a matter of timing like always.

15. At this point can you see how much longer Iced Earth will be around?

JON: I can’t see that right now, its not a time issue. If I am inspired then I will continue to write Iced Earth music. I know I have new life with Tim Owens now in the band on vocals. He has the voice I hear when I write so right now I am definitely still inspired to make music. I don’t want to be one of those bands that keeps putting out turd after turd of an album and every keeps telling you your music’s great because of who you are and they want to kiss your ass. How can the artist not know what they have done and what they are doing now? I don’t think I have that with Iced Earth, I think if I am putting out crap then I will know.

People are gonna like Matt better or even John better, I have heard it all. Fans fall in love with illusions, they don’t have no way of knowing the reality because they don’t know us. They know the photographs and the recordings, but there is not a person out there that knew the Mat Barlow and I did. He was a great guy but it was time for him to get out of the band, it happens. I can’t help it if somebody is in love with that era of Iced Earth. You know Matt is gone and Tim is here and Tim is fucking great.

All the guys I have worked with over the years have these special qualities about them and they brought that to Iced Earth’s music. Hansi is the ultimate vocal arranger, Tim has the best pitch and power in size, Matt created atmosphere well. I think Tim is the best Metal singer there is, you may like somebody better, but technically you can’t ask for anything better.

I think some of the stuff we did on “Something Wicked” is some of the best shit we have ever done, but I don’t say that’s because of Mat because its not, it was the soul of the music.

16. Is there a version of the “Glorious Burden” with Matt singing and we that ever be released?

JON: Yes but I would not release it, it was just not good enough. It would be like cashing in and second thing its also like putting out a sub standard product. The album is awesome the way it is. It is my favorite album we have done, “Something Wicked is a close second and “Night of the Stormrider” after that. “Dark Saga” was also another great period especially after a really shit period during “Burnt Offerings”. I would like do redo “Dantes Inferno” (from Burnt Offerings) with Tim singing and a full orchestra. “Dantes Inferno” was definitely the highlight of Burnt Offerings. If I had the chance to rework that album I would. After that, the “Dark Saga” was a big stepping stone for me as a songwriter, I was really inspired by that story. It was a little simpler musically but there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s all about writing a good song. Some of my favorite songs are by ACDC, yeah some of that stuff is simple but they play it like grown men. That’s what separates the men from the boys. I’ve seen kids try to play 250 beats a minute of double bass but let me see you groove a regular old fashion rock n roll beat and make it fucking count. John Bonham and those guys, simplicity, there’s nothing wrong with that, its all about feeling, not how fast you can play.

Try playing with groove and in time. I have auditioned some many guitars players over the years and to find somebody that can play the chops and do the solos, I have not found that yet.

As the interview comes to a close…. we spoke of the final chapter to the Star Wars saga and soon after went to see Episode 3 in New York city joined by, and a thanks to, Jon Paris from SPV and fellow journalist Ken Pierce, good to hang with you both once again. It was a pleasure to speak with yet again one of my heros who continues to inspire me and someone I hope to get the opportunity to speak with again.

And for those who heard that Jon is “difficult to work with” if that makes you genuine, demonstrate a passion for your craft and having a creative vision, then I am happy to be difficult to work with as well. Cheers!

Official website: www.icedearth.com

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