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Iced Earth

Met Stu Block als zanger en knallers als 'Dystopia' en ‘Plagues Of Babylon’ in de achterzak, veroverde Iced Earth de wereld, maar uiteindelijk moesten ze daar een prijs voor betalen. Mastermind Jon Schaffer moest (opnieuw) geopereerd worden en de rest van de band kampte met een burn-out. Gelukkig kwam Iced Earth alle problemen te boven en kunnen ze nu met frisse moed een volgend werkstuk aankondigen: ‘Incorruptible’. Op zijn promotour is Jon vandaag neergestreken in Amsterdam vanuit Berlijn en hij staat ons rustig en uitgebreid te woord.

Door: Vera | Archiveer onder heavy / power metal

Three and a half years have gone by since we spoke on behalf of ‘Plagues Of Babylon’. A lot of things happened in the world since then, but also within Iced Earth. These were pretty heavy years for you, so let us first focus on all the changes and the things you went through…
The biggest thing was obviously the neck surgery I went through. That was in July 2014. We were on two massive world tours and we did two albums and a DVD in three years, which was a really, really intense work. Somewhere around 350 shows. In hindsight it was not smart or productive, because the band just got burnt out and full of stress. You just can’t tour like that constantly. We had breaks now and then, but not that many You can go out on the road and tour a lot, do a month and then go home for a couple of weeks, but we were not doing that. We were doing three months and go home for a week and two months and go home for two weeks. You never get the chance to relax or recover. That’s pretty hardcore. We know we have learned our lesson and will do a wiser investment of time, thinking about the quality, not the quantity. That actually caused my neck situation as well, rapidly going out of control. So unfortunately we had to cancel some shows, because I was very close to losing the use of my right hand. It was really getting serious, so instead of being able to do it in September of that year, we had to push it up to July. But, I spent the time after. I got healed up pretty quick, did a lot of recovery and psycho therapy and revalidation. After that I really wanted to buy a couple of buildings, rebuild it and turn it into our headquarters. So I ended up buying two buildings actually and opened them up and that became my focus for about a year of remodeling and construction and making it in what the band needed. As soon as the control room was ready to go, I started writing and doing the demos The construction was a bitch, there was a huge amount of work on it. When I think back it took only a year to do what was done, that is already pretty much a miracle.I did a lot of the construction and stuff myself too.

Wasn’t that dangerous after the operation on your neck?
No, not really. I was doing a lot of training to get my body really strong. I was not doing anything that would give me problems on my neck, but I did do a lot of stuff. I had help too of course. It was a big project to be undertaken, but now we’re almost done. We still have to do work in the warehouse and the office, but the studio is finished. It is great!

So you live in Indiana, US now. No more Uruguay…
No, I was on the road so much that I really did not spend so much time there anymore. We are back in the States since 2014, after I had my surgery, that’s when the decision was made.

I understand that you were eager to tour since Stu (vocals) joined the band, because before that it was always a bit of a problem with Matt as singer…
Well, we have done a lot of touring before, but not to that extent. And not the entire world: Australia, New Zealand, South America, Central America, North America, all over Europe, Eastern Europe, even down in the North Africa, Russia… and then after this massive tour right into the studio and do a record. And even then during recording, playing certain festivals on the weekend and then when the record was done, immediately going on another massive world tour. It was just too much. The band, normally, ever since the first album, we would do at least a European tour and then when things started happening in the States, we ended up with two runs in Europe and US for every record. We have toured, for sure. We were never really a studio band, but this last couple of years before the break were definitely the heaviest ones, no doubt.

Initially the new album was announced as ‘The Judas Goat’. Why did you change the title?
Just because it was a working title and the whole inspiration changed. It did not fit anymore from where I was heading. The overall vibe just did not fit anymore, because if I would have started writing, not built the headquarters building and stuff like that, I am sure the album would have had a very different feel to it. We went through a pretty brutal change in management and there was a pretty heavy sense of betrayal. Some stuff I cannot talk about, but it was a lot of heavy shit for the band to endure. I was just thinking: If I go this direction, this album is going to end being made in a spirit of anger and bitterness and I was like: I am not going to do that again. So I learned my lesson from the ‘Burnt Offerings’ period. That was a decision I made and then by the time I took the time to heal and focus on building the buildings and doing that work, I was in a much better frame of mind to start writing. The whole attitude of the record changed drastically.

The title ‘Incorruptible’ fits better, it stands for the band itself…
Yes, the vision of the band is completely incorruptible. That’s been clear through all of the hardships and the changes and the things we have been through. For me personally, making this thing a reality, I have been faced with so many things that people don’t even know. Maybe it will be in a book some day, but it has really been a really hard road at times. Where a lot of people just quit: ‘I’m not doing this’, but I have a drive inside of me that really comes from the desire to write songs. The integrity of the band, the vision, the devotion, has never been corrupted and it will not be.

I think there are songs with an historical theme again…
Yes, there are definitely some songs that are related to history. Whether it is Vikings, or pirates in ‘Black Flag’ or ‘Clear The Way (December, 13th 1862)’ which is a dedication, like a tribute to the Irish Brigade from the Battle of Frederichsburg, a lot of sacrifices. It is a pretty heavy story. ‘Ghost Dance’ is a tribute to the native Americans. It was just flowing naturally. The decision I made in the beginning was that I did not want this to be a theme or a concept record. I just wanted it to be a collection of songs. I think it has been since the first album where we have done that.

The first song ‘Great Heathen Army’ has right away an unexpected Scandinavian Viking touch. Are you into that?
Stu wrote the lyrics for it and I talked to him and I said: I need you to give me some song title ideas or things you are going to write about, because my job is to create the soundscape for whatever the direction of the lyrics might be. So he sent me a few song titles and that was one of them and I knew where he was going in terms of the storytelling. Stu is a lot more into Vikings and Norse mythology than I am. I just think it is cool and I got into the TV series that they did, which is great, but I don’t know how true that is. Stu says it is based on historical research, reenacted, but anyway, it is enjoyable. Pretty much when I wrote the intro, I knew that was going to be the beginning of the record. I arranged this kind of a vicious onslaught of music, but still had a lot of melody in it. There is a lead guitar melody I put in the chorus part that really changed the feeling of it. Before that part was in it, it was all victory. When I put that simple moving melody in there, it may have some little hint of tragedy also. There’s a little bit of a melancholic feel that I get from it. It really changed the mood of the chorus quite a bit. When Stu came at the end of the preproduction and writing process, he worked out the lyrics and I tracked them, it turned into a real cool song.

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’Seven Headed Whore’ should be connected with ‘Whore Of Babylon’?
Yeah that’s right. That’s the idea behind that one. It definitely has got a Slayer vibe in the intro riff and then it goes into pretty much traditional Iced Earth style. Those kind of thrashy songs that we have done through the years now and then.

What is ‘Black Flag’ about?
‘Black Flag’ is a kind of short lyrical history of the pirates, which was quite a challenge lyrically for me, because it is such a huge history to dive into. To do it in a five minutes song was a challenge, but I think it worked out great. It is one of the highlights of the record for me. It is not a typical pirate song like a lot of people do, you know: ‘yohoho and a bottle of rum’, it is pretty brutal. It is about betrayal, being betrayed by the different empires and then turned into some outcasts, they had been relying on that system hundreds of years. They became totally the ropes of the sea and they were out for blood. They had their own communities and stuff, it is pretty cool. They were kind of the ultimate freedom guys in a lot of ways. Stealing and all those things is obviously not good, but they had these democracies on their ships. It is just amazing what they did and how free they were, like they were ruling their ship like their own country and I think that is kind of a cool concept.

Soon you come close to the borders of anarchy maybe…
Maybe… maybe that’s not such a bad idea. I don’t think governments have served us well through the human history. It is like the number one killer of all time. Way more than cancer or anything else, the government kills…

Indeed, you had a kind of storm with the US elections as well recently…
Yeah but that storm has been going on for a long time. The media gets worse. It is terrible. I don’t trust anything these days.

On the other hand we have some really beautiful calmer tracks on the album, like the sensitive ‘The Relic (Part I)’. What is it about?
That is really pretty dark (chuckles). It is Stu’s lyrics and it is an original story idea he had - one of the things we also talked on the phone about and then he explained the story and where he was going - and I said: ‘I think I have the perfect music for what you are talking about’. I sent it to him and he was in awe too. Basically the story – and these are my words, not his - makes me think of Indiana Jones meets ‘The Exorcist’. Father is like a relic hunter and he steals this particular relic from a tribe and then he ends up giving it to his son and then the relic possesses his son and the son kills his father.

Is ‘Brothers’ written with somebody particular in mind?
Again, this is one Stu wrote the lyrics for. He said we needed to write a song about our brotherhood and I agreed it was a great idea. We put together this musical arrangement and it is definitely kind of a rock/metal anthem. We sat in the control room and we wrote the lyrics together. It is just a song about our brotherhood and that resonates to the rest of the guys in the band.

Where come the ethnic influences in ‘Ghost Dance’ from?
From the native Americans. That whole song is a tribute to native Americans and their spirit. The voices that you hear in the very beginning and then during that bridge are actually recorded in the forties and I found it on YouTube. I got it from there and I time-stretched it and re-tuned it to make it fit in the key of the song and it ended up being a pretty spooky effect.

Brent Smedley is back on drums. That must have been great after his troubles and departure in 2013…
Yeah he has been in and out the band for… I even don’t remember how many times, but he has always been a brother and it is good to have him back. He did a very good job on this record, he played very well.

But another brother left the band, long time guitarist Troy Steele. I guess he needed more time on his own?
Yeah. We are definitely not going to lose him as a brother, he’s always going to be. The support system that he had to help with his autistic son fell apart and he was really freaking out and stressed as he thought about how to handle it when being on tour and leaving and having the kind of schedule that we have. He was very stressed about that. He just came to me and said: ‘man, I have to quit the band. I just can’t do it.’ Of course, family comes first, so I get that. He was a friend of mine ten years before he was in the band and he will always be a friend. He is the one who lives the closest to me, so we are in contact with each other almost every day. Even if it is just texting back and forth and sending each other jokes… We were bombed, because we all love Troy and Troy has such an amazing sense of humour. He is so twisted and dark. He was the guy – when everybody was fucking tired and we were backstage, being on the road for eight months and everybody was super burnt out or whatever – then he would just come in and his sense of humour just get us laughing, sometimes to the point of tears, you know. We are going to miss that special kind of chemistry. Well, Jack is great too and he has got a pretty twisted sense of humour as well. He is definitely a very different person than Troy, but he fits in with us. We did one European tour with Jack so far and he did a fantastic job on the guitar solos. He is twenty-five years old, he has his whole life ahead of him and he is such a good guy. We are happy to have him!

But you knew him already, since he was playing in your support act once, isn’t it?
Yeah I knew him kind of. I did not know him very well, but I talked a little bit with him when we were touring with White Wizzard. Hundreds of people did audition, but it was the in depth phone conversation that I had with Jack that really made me feel like he was the guy to bring out for an audition and that’s the way it went. There were candidates from all over the world. There were some good ones, I had many long talks, checked them out on video and did research, but eventually Jack was the one that I really felt the best about.

As we said before, you have your own headquarters and studio now. Other times you often went abroad to record. Until now, what are the pros and cons of recording a record at home?
I have had a studio on my property before where we did ‘Framing Armageddon’ and ‘The Crucible Of Man’ and at that time I did a lot of records at Morrisound which is not the same building anymore. This is great to have my equipment finally out of storage, because it was all in boxes and crates when we lived in South America. So now I have got it and access to it and a really killer sounding studio and control room. It is not like a bedroom with a Pro Tools system, this is a pretty serious set up. There is a lot of designing and stuff to make it sound good. The drum sound in the studio is killer I think. So we are on the right path. I work really hard when I go into song-writing mode, but with this kind of a set-up, it is not like we have to run a place or go to a studio and really be as concerned about the budget as we used to be. I own the building and I own all the equipment. We start to be careful, because my guys all live internationally and flights are expensive. So if I say, ‘are you coming for a month?’, it needs to be done in a month. Changing flights is expensive and screws up the schedule. The preproduction is always the most extensive part of the process. Getting everything going and getting the songs happening… getting cool arrangements and knowing what you are going to do in master-tracking. The great thing is that I have the studio where we are going to be recording all future stuff. It is the same place where I can do preproduction and that is awesome.

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Since the name of the studio is Independence Hall, I think it also is a wise move to be more independent in future, since the music industry is always changing…
Absolutely. ‘Incorruptible’ is our last album with Century Media. It is really the last old school album that we will ever do with that old school type of contract. So we are looking in a lot of different options for the future. We are not in a hurry to make that decision, because it is going to be a while before we start a new album process. So we need to take our time and think it through. But the whole point of this building and our headquarters is to move it downfield towards independence. Don’t get me wrong, we will cooperate with labels, but we are going to see who’s going to do what. There will be negotiations later on, but I just don’t want to commit to anything or anybody right now, because we have a lot of ideas and we need to sit down and hash this out and then we will start talking with record companies and see who’s willing to do what.

This time you worked with Christopher ‘Zeuss’ Harris, first time for you. Where in the process did he come in sight?
He did not produce the record, he engineered it. Not even all of it, because there’s still some parts on it that I did (quite a bit of the recording of the guitars and some of the vocals) and there’s even some stuff that Jim Morris had his hands on, because he helped me wire up and get the studio running and everything and I did some tracking we were able to use on this master-track. So there were three people. Chris did most of the engineering, for sure the bulk of it, but there were other people who did. He mixed and mastered it. He did a great job. It was really cool working with him. I was in Uruguay when he first got started and we were discussing things over Facetime. Chris was sending me files pretty much every day and I was listening and giving him my comments. Not that many, because he was really on target with everything. He has always been a great Iced Earth fan, so that was helpful. He knew the history of the band pretty well and knew what I was after. When I left Uruguay, I went straight to him, to Massachusetts, for four days and we did the final touches on the nexus and that’s it…

Are there guest appearances on the album?
There are. There’s three backing vocalists that came and sing and two of those guys were on ‘The Glorious Burden’ and one of them was on ‘Horror Show’. They just did some backing vocals, really cool stuff, on five or six of the songs.

I found out there are already lyric videos (for ‘Raven Wing’ and ‘Seven Headed Whore’), but are you planning to make music videos as well?
We are going to film a video this Summer for ‘Black Flag’, so, yes. It will get launched before the US tour in the Fall. Late Summer.

When did you actually start playing live again after your surgery?
First one was 70,000 Tons of Metal. I try to remember which year it was… (thinks) 2016 I guess. Then we did headline the Bang Your Head festival in the Summer in Germany and that was the only show we played in Europe. Then we went back into the studio.

I see this Summer you are playing some festivals and what is next?
The festivals are kind of scattered, we are doing a few this year and then we are planning to tour the States around October. I think in January next year on the timeframe we will be back in Europe.

Didn’t you consider to buy a house in Europe to be closer when touring?
(laughs) I wish I’d made that amount of money to buy a house in Europe, but no, I would not do that, because I need to be around my daughter. She is actually coming to Europe with me this Summer, so she is going to be here for quite a while. She has been to Europe before, but now she is twelve. She’s going to take it in better than when she was really young. It is going to be a great experience for her.

Did you recently see some bands live or were you too busy?
I was too busy, but…. (thinks) No, I did see a couple. I saw Sabaton a few weeks ago. They are good friends of mine. They played in Kentucky which is an hour and a half from here. I hung out with those guys. Before that, I did take a break from song-writing and I went to see a band called The White Buffalo. That is really a great band. It is kind of country stuff but with a hard edge, but the guys are brilliant song-writers, amazing lyricists, killer singer. That was one of the best shows I have ever seen. There was no show, just those guys getting up on stage and jamming. And I saw Ghost, in Indianapolis. That’s about it. I am not really into going to concerts. There has to be a reason. Either it’s a band that I absolutely love and I will take the time to do it, or friends of mine.

Is Stu living in the US now?
No, he is still in Canada. That is the challenge for us. We just can’t get together and jam. It is expensive to get together, because Luke lives in England, Jack is in California, Stu is in Canada, Brent is in Florida, I am in Indiana. So, major planning is involved every time we do something.

Do you know Ted Nugent personally?
I don’t know Ted Nugent. I’d love to meet him, but I never had the chance. I don’t really follow Ted or his music. Every now and then I see or hear something about him. Haha, it is true, they broke the mould when they made Ted Nugent, for sure. I appreciate him. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I do agree with a lot of it. I think he is a wild and crazy guy.

That’s why I asked it. At some points I think you would get along pretty well…
In terms of trying to follow the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and being a hunter and kind of doing this rugged Americana thing, yes, but I think sometimes he is over the top and a little bit arrogant. Too Republican party as well, while I don’t trust the Republicans and I don’t trust the Democrats. But I admit that we really had a lot of bad stuff going on recently in the US. It is just that… The system itself is broken. It doesn’t matter – almost at this point – who you put in as the President, because the President is not the guy who really runs everything anyway. It is all guards and people around him, giving him the information… aargh… I think it is all run by a very shadowy group of gangsters. It pisses me off, but I don’t know if they are ever going to break their power. That’s maybe going to result in a massive financial collapse or maybe just with time and more and more exposure how the system really works, things could change, but it is difficult.

And you know what? In Europe we are going in the same direction. They are dictating everything from Europe out. Every country is losing its independence and you have to follow rules above rules…
That is right. It is a pretty fucked up situation in the world right now I think.

The US was the big example for Europe to become one, but it does not work…
Well, the problem with this whole idea of a world government is, it is not based on human liberty and freedom and prosperity. It is really based on control and domination from the central power. That means banking and government power. If you study history, this does not sound like a good idea, because – like I said earlier – government is the number one killer of humanity on the face of the earth. And at some point any given system can go really bad and turn on its citizens and that’s happened time and time again in history. Now we have lived through - in the Western world - a pretty long period of peace within our homelands, you know. There has been war, but it has not affected us directly and I think that made people soft and they have forgotten or not paying attention to what’s going on with their governments. It is always a dangerous situation when people get complacent. Always.

Okay, let’s round off with a more cheerful note. Jon, it was fantastic to talk to you again. Let’s meet at Alcatraz!
Yeah I’ll be there. My girlfriend and her daughter and my daughter will be there. I heard that this festival is growing and it sounds as if they have some really cool bands this year. So I am looking forward to it.

Thank you for making time for me…
Hey, no problem. Thank you for your support. I really appreciate that. Take care.

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