Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth: "The chemistry in the band is better than it's ever been"

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Iced Earth (due tonight at Summit Music Hall) came out of the rich heavy metal scene in Tampa Bay, Florida in the late '80s. At a time when melodic heavy metal, especially the glam variety, was on the wane, Iced Earth came in with the wave of metal that produced a melodic speed metal as well as the sort that became known as death metal from the mid '80s to around the turn of the decade with peers like Deicide, Death and Morbid Angel, who helped to establish further a newer, more brutal aesthetic than fully existed before.

But Iced Earth's musical roots were more grounded in speed metal as pioneered by bands out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its thrash descendents. Iced Earth's latest release, Dystopia came out in October 2011. We recently spoke with founding member and guitarist and backing vocalist Jon Schaffer about Iron Maiden and his love of human liberty and Les Pauls.

Westword: What was it about seeing Kiss for the first time at eleven make you realize you wanted to do that for a living?

Jon Schaffer: I don't know, man, I guess I was like a million other teenage kids. It's a shock to the senses. Growing up in the '70s at that age and you had Star Wars and that, that was an assault on the senses. The first time I saw that movie, to see that same kind of assault on the senses from a rock band was a big deal.

Was there a receptive audience for the kind of music you were doing earlier in your career and what kind of local scene was there at that time?

When I really first started playing out with Purgatory, which was my first band, there was a really good scene in the Tampa Bay area for more traditional metal. Then later in the '80s, and certainly in the early '90s when the death metal took over where the melodic metal scene kind of died around there. We started working internationally at that point. We came up in a very difficult time because of the grunge thing that took over and really became the trend in the early '90s all the way through a large part of the '90s.

It's always been kind of an uphill battle for Iced Earth. I think if the first album had come out in 1980, we would have reached that Iron Maiden status, Priest. I think we would have been right there with the big guys. But since we came up a decade later, we were fighting just to survive and never had the support machinery around us until many years later which is a record company firing on all cylinders, management, all of that.

There are so many cogs in the machine that make a band successful. It's been an uphill battle and we still face some of that today, but I have to say, things are moving better than they probably ever have. The chemistry in the band is better than it's ever been. And that goes to say also for our crew and people behind the scene too and it's really feeling great.

Did you play small clubs or warehouses in the beginning?

When we were first starting out, we would play a couple of famous bars in Tampa Bay. One was called the Sunset Club; the Volley Club was another one. There was The Rocket Club, and there were a few places that all the local bands played. Rock bars kind of stuff.

I have to think that Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast had a big impact on you as you were starting to play music more seriously. Why is that such an important record to you?

I was really right around the time that I heard Number of the Beast that I got my first guitar because I had begged my dad for years after seeing Kiss in '79. He finally realized I wasn't going to give up on that and got me one. I got that album, and it blew my mind because I had never heard anything like that. I grew up with the old wave of British heavy metal, so we're talking Sabbath and Deep Purple. I wasn't really into Zeppelin that much but I heard it because my older sister was into it. Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult, so it was more mid-tempo rock stuff.

Then Maiden comes out, and they have this wild rhythm section. The bass player, Steve Harris, just blew my mind. His compositions, the tempo changes, the guitar harmonies, the subject matter of the lyrical content. The whole thing was the ultimate package. It just felt like that was the direction for a vision of a band I had before I had a guitar. Once I heard those guys it was, "That's the direction I want to go in." Not the old wave of British heavy metal. It's more theatrical and I think that's the big thing with Iced Earth.

I've always tried to make the music kind of a roller coaster ride of emotion for the listeners. If you have parts in songs that can take you down to the melancholy vibe of Pink Floyd up to the raging thrashy stuff of Slayer and everything in between, then you're really taking your listeners on a journey.

Even though you're a guitar player, you cite Steve Harris as an influence.

If you look at the best Maiden stuff, especially from the old classic stuff, they were sole Steve Harris compositions. That tells you where the real driving force of the band is -- the songwriter. I don't care what anybody says, that's just the way it is. And sometimes it's a team of people and sometimes it's not. In that case, he truly defines the sound of the band.

His whole vision I found inspiring almost to the point that, at one time, I considered -- and I was probably sixteen or seventeen years old -- selling my guitar rig and switching to playing bass. I really do love bass. Rhythm is my thing, and I think bass is a badass instrument. But I was so broke I couldn't afford to do that anyway, and in hindsight, it's probably smarter not to have done that.

I never learned to play Maiden songs growing up. I didn't play any cover tunes growing up. Not until I had several albums out. Your influences come at a bit of a subconscious level. I think a lot of fans think they have to learn to play their heroes' music in order to really understand it. But I think you're getting it if you just listen to it and you get it on a different level.

A lot of guys grow up, play their heroes' music and never find their own voice, and they don't find who they are. I think it's because they get into this trap of always playing cover tunes and they're not really searching their soul. Your influences are going to be there, is what I'm saying. You don't have to play the songs to be influenced by them. So I try to inspire young guitar players not to worry about what I'm doing but to try to find themselves.

What inspired the concept for the Setians from your Something Wicked albums? Is it based loosely on the sorts of ideas that informed David Icke's ideas about Reptilians?

Well the freaky thing is...there's some stuff, I don't know what it is, there's some similarities. But I came up with this back in '97, and I had never heard of David Icke. I think the Something Wicked story hit me all at once like a ton of bricks. The trilogy came out in 1998 on the album Something Wicked This Way Comes. You know, I never learned about a lot of the things really going on. I'm not sure I could go all the way with David Icke. I don't have any proof. I agree with much of what he says but there's a certain point where I say, "That's interesting, but I can't prove it."

The things I can prove are how criminal and corrupt our government is--that's easy. And all the governments around the world. I think they're working together to lull the population into a nightmarish existence and I'm not fucking putting up with it. I know a lot of people that aren't.

When it comes to that kind of stuff, I agree with David Icke completely. But I have say this, I think there's far more going on, probably, than meets the eye but you have to pick your battles. To me it's far easier to convince free human beings that there's something really wrong when you talk about the blatant and obvious level of corruption we're all dealing with.

That's something you delved into more deeply with Sons of Liberty, right?

That's right.

What did you witness in Central America when you were on vacation that made you realize the connection between the Federal Reserve and terrible things going on in the world?

It wasn't necessarily that I saw something. It's that disconnected, I kind of unplugged, and took a vacation for the first time in my life and got out of the system and away from the cell phones and the fucking television and all the shit that we're bombarded with. After a few weeks, I really started to feel different, and I really started to reconnect with what it is I'm supposed to be instead of being trapped on the hamster wheel. That was a big thing.

The thing that opened my eyes to everything was, the first step was the vacation and the second step was learning about the MIAC Report. I was like, "What the hell is going on here?" I started digging and researching and all the dots were connecting, and that made a nightmarish picture appear before my eyes. I've always felt like I was born in the wrong time period and maybe after all I wasn't. So I'm going to stand up and get involved and do what I feel is right.

But it's a learning process, you know. Every day I try to learn more and more, and I know myself well enough now to know that if I think I have it all figured out, I know that in two or three years from now, I'll be full of shit. You know what I mean? It gets more and more bizarre and things become more clear.

What sparked your interest in history and why is that subject so fascinating to you?

I've been that way since I was a little kid. For some reason I've had this love of the American Revolution and this idea of freedom and human liberty and it really resonated with me as a small kid. Maybe some of it was growing up during the Bicentennial but I think it runs deeper than that. Every since I was old enough to read, if I could get my hands on books about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all those cats, I just loved it.

I don't know where it comes from, I guess that's the short answer. The American Revolution and the Civil War are the periods of American history that I love to study. Our history has been changed a lot, I think intentionally. Certainly about the Civil War and what really happened and what it was really about. There's plenty of evidence to prove that but most people just don't care. It does serve to keep the sheep blind, mo doubt.

Is there a particular book or author you'd recommend?

There are many books but I think the most important book for every human being to read, at least in my opinion, is The Creature from Jekyll Island [by G. Edward Griffin], which touches on a lot of things throughout history. But it really exposes the money changers, the Federal Reserve system, and what these people are all about and how the same blood lines have been manipulating people and causing the wars and everything. You get a different perspective on the American Revolution and the Civil War if you read that -- on every war. It'll change your perception because you'll see who really benefits from the system.

If anyone visits the Sons of Liberty website, I have a whole book list of recommended reading. The real George Washington, the real Benjamin Franklin, the real Thomas Jefferson -- Jefferson's own writings are amazing. He's my idol. To me, he is the ultimate founder.

Why did you want to write a 32-minute song about Gettysburg?

I went to the battlefield while we were driving through and spent a couple of days there. It blew my mind. That place is magic. It's so tragic you can feel it but it's so amazing and I felt an energy there like I've never felt anywhere before. I was walking around that battlefield and I'm like, "Man, I'm gonna write something big out of this, I can just feel it."

My whole body was just resonating with it. I committed after soaking it for a few days and went, "I'm going to write an epic about this place, it's too incredible to not." I didn't say it was going to be 32 minutes; I just wrote it. However long it came out to be. We had the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra record with us, and it's quite a theatrical piece of music.

You're the only original member of the band at this point. What has kept you sustaining this project rather than starting over under a different name at some point in your career?

This is who I am. This is what I do. I've been fortunate enough to work with a lot great musicians, and I've done some really cool side projects with great friends and stuff, but Iced Earth that's me; it's who I am. Don't know why, that's the way it is.

On your Wikipedia page it lists "drum machine" as one of your instruments. Is that accurate?

Um, I don't know, that's kind of silly. Obviously it's not an instrument for me. That probably comes from the Sons of Liberty album where I programmed the drums to keep the costs down because I gave it away. Wikipedia is...any moron can go in there and change information. Drums is one of the most expensive parts of recording an album, and since I knew I was going to be giving it away, I decided to program the drums and Jim Morris is great at making it. I'll lay out the basic loops, and he'll come in and tweak them and add the human touch to it.

We've done it for years on demos. Sons of Liberty is basically a demo, maybe a little glorified, but it's not like a full production where we go in and really nail it down and pay attention to every detail. It's about the message, it's not about anything other than that.

What do you like about Les Pauls and what got you into using the baritone version of that guitar for the Something Wicked albums?

Man, Les Pauls are just the big, fat, chunky guitar sound. You know when you're holding a Les Paul, you're holding a piece of lumber. They're heavy guitars, and they sound heavy. They're tight and punchy, for the most part. I've had a couple of dead Les Pauls through the years. Every piece of wood are unique and that's why none of them will ever sound exactly the same.

I've tried them all, but pretty much, any Gibson model I can get the kind of attack and response that my playing requires to really come across the way it's supposed to. It has to do with the set neck guitar style. An SG is going to be a little thinner-sounding, but I can still get the attack and the tightness there.

I've used 135s and 335s, Explorers, Vs, whatever. I've got a whole stable of Gibson guitars but the Les Paul is always the one I'll record most of the rhythm tracks with. However, on Dystopia, I did use my Explorer. My favorite Les Paul I named Smokin' Joe and it never goes out on tour with me. But I split the rhythm tracks between that and the Explorer. Something about Gibson guitars, man.

I used the baritone guitars on a few songs on those albums. It just adds a cooler vibe, you know, and makes it a little heavier and meatier sounding. The biggest challenge with the baritone was finding a pickup that would respond to my fast picking with that fat of a string and that long of a scale of a neck. So that was a challenge.

It took quite a bit of experimenting, but Jim Wagner, from WCR Pickups, is the one who helped me to figure out that we needed to go lower, lower, lower output, instead of higher, higher, higher, which is what some other builders were telling me. Because you have such a big string flopping over there creating all the magnetic energy the low output actually made it sound tighter, so he was right so that's what we ended up doing.

Iced Earth, with Symphony X and Warbringer , 6:30 p.m., Saturday, February 25, Summit Music Hall, $29, 1-866-468-7621, All Ages

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