Meeting Jon Schaffer was special to me. I have listened to his music for 15 or even 20 years now. And then he surprised me with some very personal replies on the band history, its dynamics and his attitude towards metal.
It’s a brutally hot summer day in the remote scenery of rural German countryside – Rock Am Stück – as I meet Jon Schaffer, head composer, guitarist, and well, simply the mastermind of Iced Earth. The band has played quite a few festivals in Europe already this summer and some club gigs in between. I wonder if he still plays and likes the small club stages. Jon explains that depending on where they are Iced Earth plays on many club stages just like now in between the festivals: “The idea is just to fill the halls instead of sitting around and having costs. So we’re doing club shows between the festivals. And usually in the winter you have more people because of the festivals – it takes so much money in Europe to go around.”
The Best-Ever Line Up
We travel back in time and speak of how Iced Earth has become what it is in 2018. “There have been periods when there has been real magical chemistry within the band and this is one of them, you know. And there have been periods when it hasn’t been that magical but we still could do amazing records.” With a smile he adds: “But in that instant, this is the best line up we ever had.” And Jon tells me the band members are friends, spend their spare time together, hang out or even will go on a one-week hiking vacation together soon. We drift into exchanging our trekking experience, how relaxing the wide view over a landscape free of human dwellings is. Then again, an outdoor tour, just like the one they will do, is a very intense experience. Jon points out that it is not job-related. Of course otherwise they were not spending their holidays together. It will be Jon’s first holiday from Iced Earth in ten years, he says and he is very much looking forward to four weeks without cell phones and internet in Arizona.
New Demons & Wizards Album Coming – I wonder how Iced Earth’s long history as a band has affected Jon himself. He has played with “tons of musicians”, as he says, be it in the band, as session or live musicians or be it in different projects, such as Demons & Wizard, who will soon release a new album, he adds. New members bring new ideas, energies and spirit to any band. But what do those changes mean to Jon? Inspiration or new energy? Or even a challenge? “It’s a little bit of all of that. But every scenario has been different whether I wanted people to leave the band or they wanted to. There is a different scenario for it. And it’s never been a situation in which it’s been a torment for me. ‘Ok like one guy has gone. I have to quit?‘ – ‘No, my vision is to complete with it!‘“ Jon illustrates the situation for me. How to keep it alive? Creativity is a force of its own, I think.
His vision for Iced Earth is a topic we will go back to, but right now I wonder if Jon has a routine or even ritual to figure out new band members. It depends on the goal, of course, he points out. There are different requirements for a session musician than a full band member. He describes that he relies on his ability to find out about a musician’s skill by listening to his/her music and otherwise it depends on his instincts who might fit. “Sometimes I have been wrong, you know, where you get somebody who can do it in the rehearsal room but when they go out in front of people they can’t handle it, or the pressure or the life style of the tour. And sometimes they ace completely and I picked the right guys. This has been my commitment since the very beginning. I have the vision and I chased it and I never surrendered, you know? Until I am ready, and until I am done, I keep doing it.” This is getting us back to the vision question. I wonder if Jon can think of any scenario that would stop him composing. “I will know when that time comes”, he says with a trace of tension in his voice. “But I still have a lot to say as a songwriter. It’s all about life. It’s all about experience. It’s really not about anything else. It’s it.“
We All Create A Soundscape
Jon is still pretty much the center of the creative dynamics in Iced Earth. I wonder if the hiking tour will be a source of inspiration for him and the whole band. “It surely is“, he explains and we get a bit deeper into it: “Well, I’m talking about my songs and the ones I write before the other bit. If the other guys handed in riffs or Stu has a critic idea about a lyrical thing it has to resonate with me because I have to write the soundtrack or we have to write the soundtrack. I have to inspire the guys. We have to feel it. We have to talk about it. And we all create a soundscape that is with whatever subject matter we write about. Iced Earth is all about the roller coaster. Always. Always have been. So it’s always about the different emotions whether it is up, down, raging, super melodic, whatever. It’s all game. You know it’s all there in the game.“
Despite Jon being the mastermind sending pretty much nearly finished songs on the demos to the band, there is space for input: “Not much. I mean of course the drummer’s gonna do the drum fills. But the groove is established which is the most important thing. But what make it his style is the way he does the drum fills. Well you know, it’s the mixture of the two. And well you know, the bass lines that depends on Luke. And Luke has done some really cool bass lines since he’s been in the band for the last two albums. Well there were other records where I played the bass lines myself. I can do pretty much everything; but I want their input, and when it fits, it’s on. And they get credit for it.“
Bands do only really work if their members are dedicated to what they do. And still I can imagine that with such a long career and band history priorities might change. But Jon points out that Iced Earth still is his number one priority, save for his daughter, naturally.
I move on to the internet and social media that have brought musicians closer to their audience. In my experience the metal community respects their musician’s privacy, and Jon agrees – that depending on where you are – that works usually. He points out that he is not much of social media-active person for a simple reason. He spends 24/7 on Iced Earth as it is and has so since times before social media. So there is simply no time. “Oh, the US is not bad, at least not for us. What Metallica go through, that’s another world; or even Iron Maiden, it’s a different thing. But I think the fans are pretty respectful of that fact. You gonna have some people they’re gonna be obsessed. They start thinking you’re writing for them, that they own it somehow, and there’s been some weird situations through the years. But most of us have been doing this a long time, so you know, it’s pretty cool there.” Overly passionate fans have been there way before social media, we agree.
Metal Is A Way To Deal With Emotions
I like to catch my interviewees a bit by surprise and I really catch Jon by surprise here. “Could you sum up what metal is?” – “What is metal?” he asks back, and for the first time today, he is not entirely sovereign. “It’s a way of life. It’s the only way I can say for me”, Jon says slowly, considering his words as he speaks. “It’s all about your opinion”, I assure him. “It’s a way of life”, he says being back to full self-esteem. “It sums up the … it’s a way to kind of escape the norm. I have a different view, ’cause I am songwriter. My view is gonna be a different from a lot of people. It’s not really an escape for me. It’s a release when you’re chasing what is going on in your head and then it’s finally done. That’s definitely that kind of a feeling. It’s a way to deal with a lot of emotions, you know. Injustice. Anger. Sadness, whatever. All of it. For me it’s everything, so there has never been another option.” – “Is there any set of emotions that you process more often than any other in your songs?” – “Probably anger. I mean a lot of stuff is pretty heavy. I would say maybe.”
I intend to discuss with Jon the channeling of aggression through metal music beginning with the often, from external side, entirely unexpected peacefulness inside the metal community. I have always felt very safe moving in the metal community and this far Jon agrees. But then his experience of how peaceful the metal community is differs depending on where they are and our conversation takes an interesting turn. In terms of nonviolent interaction he says: “Well, in that regard I think you get more of that in Europe. There is a lot less fights and stuff like that up here. In the States, people get drunk and they get, you know…I mean, people get drunk here as well, but they get drunk and don’t hit the crowd, and don’t beat the shit out of you.” He points out that he has seen maybe up to five fights in his shows in Europe in 28 years, which is as much as he would see in one week of touring in the US! He considers the reasons for the higher level of violence during metal concerts in the US, and the general level of frustration in the society for a critical moment. “You know, people know how to get drunk, but don’t know how to deal with it. And it’s about the frustration. I think it’s spreading everywhere, but it’s pretty bad. Bad part of it. That doesn’t mean that I can’t walk down the street” but then he points out that people seem to get crazier and weirder nowadays.
Actually ‘crazy people’ builds some kind of bridge to my odd and final question. I ask Jon if he is into comics and he replies that earlier he was. My setting: imagine Spiderman and Batman are muted and blinded and meet being told that the other one is the one villain he has been chasing. What’s gonna happen next? “So do Spidey’s spider sense still work?” he asks with a cunning smile “because if so…” – “I suppose so”, I reply. ”Because if it does, the story is over. He already knows that Batman is a good one!” Simple and brilliant.
Jon has granted us some insights of a very personal kind and I am very grateful for his openness. He admits mistakes. Not exactly a piece of cake for the most of us. Certainly even less in public. It makes Jon all the more human and I have noticed earlier that Spiderman is often chosen as a favorite superhero, or one people associate with for being just like them, human or normal. With Jon, I experienced a balanced and mature personality of healthy self-esteem. Despite some technical issues delaying the beginning, the Iced Earth show later in the finally cooling down evening was exceeding my expectations. Stu’s voice is so brilliant, moving and powerful, while the instrumentals come heavier and harder so that the show has an own musical identity. I wish there were more bands being brave enough to show that they are more than what they display on their albums!