Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth are in an extremely strange place right now, and the frustration is beginning to show in Schaffer’s voice. Understanding that Iced Earth has spent the last decade crawling from pit to pit to play in front of a modest but growing number of faithful in the States, while enjoying arena status in Europe is the first step to empathy with Schaffer. Taking a listen to Iced Earth’s latest disc, Horror Show, is the second.
Horror Show is a phenomenal record with every aspect of the Iced Earth talent pallet represented in both broad and finite strokes which is enough to both satisfy the older fans while making some new ones and that would seem to be a demonstrable fact given the very respectable entry at number 21 on Billboard’s Heatseeker’s chart. Still, it is perhaps too little too late and something has got to give and what is giving is the relationship between Century Media, Iced Earth’s long time record label, and Schaffer. As Schaffer will explain, Iced Earth are now free agents looking for a home that will give the group the time and effort needed to take them from contenders to champions in the true-Metal marketplace.
After having been denied the lifetime dream of opening for Judas Priest on their North American tour by the events of September 11, Iced Earth regrouped with Megadeth for a short run of Stateside secondary markets before heading to Europe for headline shows. With that done, it is back to the States to see if Horror Show has taken hold enough to fill the larger clubs that are booked for a Spring tour and then the process of signing a new deal will commence in earnest. Though be it a time of great transition, Schaffer does see light at the end of the tunnel, particularly with his Demons and Wizards project, and it is this light that he is focused on rather than the dark that is behind him.
I reached Schaffer by phone at his Indiana home recently where he was resting up for this next round of Iced Earth activity.
KNAC.COM: I know that the whole touring world was thrown into chaos after 9-11 but you did pick up the tail end of the Megadeth tour, did you do anything after that?
KNAC.COM: Was that just some down time for the holidays?
JON: For the other guys, not for me. I was just writing and recording the Demons And Wizards demo stuff.
KNAC.COM: That’s right, I nearly forgot that you were scheduled to do another one of those.
JON: Yep. I have been working on that pretty steadily and doing a bunch of press as usual.
KNAC.COM: So it is pretty much business as usual? Are you back in Indiana now?
JON: Yes. Just south of Indianapolis in a town called Columbus.
KNAC.COM: OK, I had wondered because I have family there and it is such a “different” kind of breeding ground for Rockers -- Axl Rose comes to mind as being an Indiana boy.
JON: Yeah, Lafayette -- we played there with Megadeth, in fact. It was actually a great turnout with two and half thousand people or so, and it was really one of the best shows on the tour, I was surprised actually. I didn’t know what to expect really because we had never played in Indiana before. Actually, all of the gigs were good except for the Indianapolis one, that one was pretty lame.
JON: Well, it was just that it was a Monday night and that is not a good night for a gig anyway, and the crowd was just lame. They were just lazy and it was twenty-one and over so that and the Monday night kind of fucks you up. They were lazy for Megadeth, too -- they were just there, I guess.
KNAC.COM: Is this a venue that doesn’t usually hold rock shows?
JON: Actually, I think that they do, but it is just one of those places that it is much better on a weekend night and the thing with dealing with crowds that are twenty-one and over, they are not exactly consumed with the band, they are thinking about going to work the next day, and so whenever they do twenty-one and over shows, a lot of times anyway, it fucks up the response of the crowd. It is the younger kids who are really into it and they don’t have these inhibitions, kids don’t give a fuck, they just want to jam.
KNAC.COM: Having done that tour with Megadeth, you still had the chance to play in front of more people than if you had headlined your own tour, which is a strange case for you here in the States?
JON: Oh definitely. That was the cool thing and that is what was so disappointing about the Priest tour being cancelled. There were several things that came into play there, the whole idea of us doing this “no support band/three hour show” tour of Europe was that we were touring in September, but now we are doing the same thing in January and February and it is just miserable over there. I was more concerned with Matt than anybody else really. The winters over there are tough, and the busses are basically city busses that have been reconstructed to be tour busses. They are not like they are over here -- where you have nice climate controlled tour busses -- so conditions are bad. The backstage areas are freezing, and I am just worried that touring in these conditions, we just have to stay healthy somehow. That is one thing that is a bummer about all this. The terrorist thing fucked up the Priest tour and you see, we got offered the Megadeth thing the day after the Priest tour, so it was pretty cool so that worked anyway. We had been waiting for years and years to be a support band in this country and then within a forty-eight hour period, we get two major offers. The idea was to go out and do the Priest thing, and then go out and do the second leg of the Megadeth tour and then come home for a little while with Europe in January. Well, obviously things got screwed, but at least we were still able to do Megadeth and though we were only able to hit a small area of the North-East and a pretty decent amount of the Mid-West, it was still really decent with an average, I would say, of around fifteen hundred and it was a really good thing for us. There was a really good response on most night so I really think that we did make some new fans.
KNAC.COM: The show that I saw on that tour seemed to be a very good one for you, you seemed to have fun, the audience loved it, so it was a winner all ‘round from my perspective.
JON: Yeah. I was under a tremendous amount of stress on this tour because my normal crew wasn’t working for us because of the scheduling fuckups, you know, they were there for the Priest thing and then they had other tours lined up after that so we basically got stuck with guys that we weren’t familiar with. The tour manager was a major fuck-up and he caused me a serious amount of headaches and we had problems with the bus driver and the bus company, and so I was dealing with way too much of the business and I did not have much fun on this tour at all but, shit happens.
KNAC.COM: When you sit down to write the book you will have some interesting spices to put in? (laughs)
JON: Oh, fuck, you have no idea! (laughs)
KNAC.COM: When they rescheduled the American Priest tour, many of the venues still had you on the bill but that was never the case, was it?
JON: No. We couldn’t let down the European fans again, that was just out of the question.
KNAC.COM: How have you dealt with the fact that you have basically worked your success backwards, you are growing big in Europe but still get little notice here -- any explanation for that?
"They know that we are not going to be the kind of guys that the next album that we put out is going to be rap or industrial or any bullshit, they know that there is a very intense dedication to what we do…"
JON: There are a couple of things. Actually, a lot of bands get their start over in Europe and that started with the Beatles. I mean, they were known in Germany way more than they were in England. There are a few reasons for that, and the main one is that if you have a good product and you are a good band you will get good reviews, and if you put on a good live show, basically give it your all, in Europe that will be enough to get your career started. It is not a matter of money and force-feeding and shoving shit down people’s throats and that is what it is over here. Integrity, honesty… none of it has anything to do with success in the United States, all that it does have to do with is money, who is backing you. “Who do you know?” Who is pushing the station managers at commercial radio stations to, basically, buy your airtime. Though it is illegal, that is the way it is and there are always ways around it and that is the biggest reason that a lot of bands that are really underground over here are able to build and maintain a career over there. It is a much more honest system. Commercial radio doesn’t mean anything, MTV doesn’t mean much and neither have much to do with record sales. It is kind of the way that it was in the old days here, where if you get good reviews on your records and put on a good live show, then the word of mouth spreads like wildfire. I also think that there is something kind of special about being from the States and going to Europe and performing in Europe. They look at that as if it is something pretty cool, like there is something exotic about it, that might be a little of it as well.
KNAC.COM: Well, the origins of Iced Earth do go back to the “good old days” of metal where kids would bring tapes to school to trade with other metal heads, but that was before the Internet which has kind of eliminated that whole scene or at least moved it from school to the Internet. Do you think that maybe there is an over accessibility for bands like yours here in America?
JON: I don’t know about that, because we are so small in the big picture here in the United States. We haven’t had enough exposure so overexposure, to me, doesn’t seem a problem. Now as far as people out there being able to access anything, that has hurt the industry as a whole in a lot of different ways and most people not in the business do not understand that. The people on the record industry side and the artist side can very clearly see that this whole digital world is hurting big time, which is ultimately putting record companies out of business and it is basically keeping royalties out of artists pockets, so there is a lot of negative effects to it. Luckily, for a band like Iced Earth, the majority of our fan base want to have the real product, they want to have it in their hands and they want to look at the art and they want to see the lyrics -- they want the real thing. There is definitely a percentage of people who are going to buy the bootlegs or are going to get the stuff off of the Internet for free, but the majority do not do that, and I think that is very fortunate for us and I think that comes because there is a kind of loyalty that comes just from being one of our fans. They know that we are not going to be the kind of guys that the next album that we put out is going to be rap or industrial or any bullshit, they know that there is a very intense dedication to what we do, and therefore there is a very intense following and loyalty, and that is a very cool and a very rare thing. I mean, we put out a quality product and they know it. If we were a band that put out an album with only a couple of good songs and the rest was filler crap, then we would have a lot more of that kind of stuff going on, but I would say that us and Blind Guardian are two of the fortunate bands that don’t have a lot of problem with this whole Napster thing. So many other bands, the majority of bands, their sales are going down and ours are continually going up. It is at a slower rate than theirs are going down, but they are still going up and that is a sign that everybody in the industry will be looking at us and going, “Huh, what is going on here?” And that is why we have so many people offering us record contracts right now, because it is a steady track record that we have of going up.
KNAC.COM: This is probably a good time to ask… your time is up with Century Media now isn’t it?
JON: Yes, it is.
KNAC.COM: So, any idea when you are onto next?
JON: It will definitely be a big independent, I can say that. We are dealing with a bunch of people and I don’t feel that it would be a smart move to go with a major. Majors are pretty evil. (laughs) I want to have enough clout going into a major deal that there is never a temptation there for them to try and tell me how to write and record. I don’t want them to tell me how to write or record or anything else that has to do with the artistic integrity of the band and I will not waver on that shit. They like to have that kind of control in contracts and in order to have enough clout to be able to avoid having that in a contract, you have to be able to prove that you have had success doing it your way. That is the thing, you see, I feel like if we get up to 100 or 150,000 in sales in the United States on our own, that is saying something to a major label, “Look we did this without you and this proves that my way works.” That is kind of the plan, and beside that I would rather be on a smaller label and be the most important thing on that label than being on a huge label and them saying “Well, we are going to do this for you. . .” and it is really like throwing a piece of shit against the wall. “If it sticks cool, if it doesn’t then you are done” and they will drop you like a hot potato. I mean, it is an ugly fucked up, shitty business and I hate it with a passion, but it is just one of those necessary evils that you have to deal with and I have now for over a decade. The whole thing for me, I never cared about all of this rock star bullshit or the guitar-hero thing, I am a songwriter. That is why I started this band and that is why I have kept it alive and have kept it together through numerous lineup changes and the focus has always been the same, it is all about the music. Iced Earth is just a vehicle for my songs and my guitar is just a tool to write with and all of the other shit just doesn’t matter to me. Even though it seems a little crazy and most people would have given up a long time ago if they could see what they have to do to get their songs out there and to get them heard, it is amazing.
KNAC.COM: Well, I will have to mark this day down because now, for the first time, I have spoke with two artists in the same day that appear to have far too much integrity for rock and roll. (laughs)
JON: Naw! (laughs) If I didn’t, then maybe I would have an attitude, but it really is a shitty fucking business but I can’t dance, this is what I do, you know what I mean? (laughs) This is how I keep the dream alive.
KNAC.COM: As far as Iced Earth, the group, is this going to be the same group that records the next Iced Earth record?
JON: I would imagine, yeah. It is going to be quite a while before the next Iced Earth album but anything goes I guess. At this point, with all of the shit that I have seen and dealt with, nothing surprises me anymore but I do expect that everyone here will be onboard with the next one.
KNAC.COM: Yeah? I guess what I am asking is, have you reached a kind of stability with who is in the band these days?
JON: I think so, but like I said, anything goes. Any time I have said different in the past there has been a change for whatever reason so, the one thing that I can always guarantee is that it will always be Iced Earth. The sound is always going to be there and the vision is always going to be the same, I see to that and if there is a change in personnel very rarely does it effect the ultimate outcome.
KNAC.COM: When you came to the recording of Horror Show, did you find that you would come up with songs that were great Iced Earth songs but not quite what this record needed? If so, how do you suppose those songs will be used at a later date?
JON: Yeah, and “Ghost of Freedom” was one of those kind of songs, and it was something that I had written and I was saving it for Hansi for the next Demons And Wizards album to see what he would want to do with it. I guess I felt that at the end, you know, Matt came up with the concept of the song and I really liked the idea and I said, “Well I might have some music for that idea. . .” and we started working on it together and I began to think that we did need some kind of a slower, ballad-like song on the album because there isn’t anything like it. That is something that the majority of Iced Earth fans really like, that we have that kind of variety in the albums and there will always be a couple of songs that are ballad-like along with the really aggressive and the epic and whatever. Dealing with the horror theme, you can’t really write a ballad about Jack the Ripper. (laughs) It just doesn’t work.
KNAC.COM: Come on now Jon, Spinal Tap did. (laughs)
JON: Yeah, but we are not a joke band. In the end I decided that we would put something on here and make it something completely different and it didn’t have to have something to do with the whole horror theme and so it ended up there. There is another song that I wrote and that we actually recorded parts of called “Hollow Men” that is something that doesn’t have anything to do with horror themes, it is a personal song about struggling with inner demons and that kind of thing, and it is one that I am singing lead vocals on and we all just felt that it was a very strong song and we didn’t want it to be wasted with Century Media because at that point we were arguing with the label about numerous things, and we were afraid that they were going to drop the ball on this record anyway, which is another reason why I put the “Something Wicked” concept on hold. That may not even be the next Iced Earth record, but I just want to be sure that the next people that we are in business with are taking it very seriously and I would almost hate to gamble that on the first album with a new company. I would almost rather do a record that stands on its own and has a lot of different songs and is not necessarily a concept, but is just a strong record just to see how we work with that label, to see how that relationship is. If it goes well then the next one would be the “Something Wicked” concept so that is kind of where that is all at. Jim Morris also, we all felt that “Hallow Man” is something special, and that it even has real radio potential but it is heavy and dark and definitely Iced Earth. I just had to hold off on it because, at that point, I thought that they were going to drop the ball on us. I had already told them, “There is no way in hell that I am going to re-sign with you.”
KNAC.COM: You were there for a long while, too.
JON: Yeah, and we have had some problems over the years but there has been a lot of good times and a lot of bad and they know and I know that they have never had a more dedicated artist on their label or someone who has delivered constantly and since the beginning has ran their end of it completely professionally. I have answered every fucking phone call, every e-mail and done everything that they have asked me to do and there are so many musicians who are just plain fuck-ups. That is reality because musicians, typically, are not the brightest people in the world and don’t make the smartest decisions in the world and I just feel that over the years I have just been more shafted than not by Century Media, when all I have tried to do is build my band and that label into something really strong. If I had felt that through the years that the loyalty was there and that they really treated me with respect, then I would probably be re-signing with them just because I am a very loyal person, but the shit just outweighs the good.
KNAC.COM: This is all surprising to hear because if I was asked to name THE marquee band for Century Media it would have been Iced Earth.
JON: Well, to this point we definitely have been the band that has sold the most records and had the most consistent career and that is why they hate to lose us, for sure, and I have to say that there are some people at the label that I really like and that I have grown close to over the years, who have done the very best that they could with the tools that they have been given, but at the end of the day it is all up to the guys that sign the checks, the guys who make the big decisions and those are the people that I have a problem with.
KNAC.COM: Do you own all of the Iced Earth catalog?
JON: Not until so many years after the contract is finished.
KNAC.COM: They are here, too, but Century Media is a European label and that is where your power base is, so do you think that you will go for another label that has a presence here but is based in Europe?
JON: We have thought about it and my manager and I have even spoken about breaking the markets up and trying to get the best label for any given territory, but it just depends. It will probably be months before we sign a deal, this stuff takes a long time and we have got to make sure that every “T” is crossed and that every “I” is dotted and that the contract reads the way that we want it to read. It is really all a big game, it is all a record company game and all the people that we have dealt with in the past know that we are not going to be fooled. SPV, they are very cool, they have come up with a deal that from dealing with me and Hansi and my management on the Demons And Wizards records that there is no bullshitting, and so they came up with something that is very interesting, so we are basically done looking at that one, but there are other companies that we are dealing with that, what they will do is they will put in a paragraph that will say, “This is definitely unacceptable,” but then ten pages later they will sneak it back in and so that kind of shit needs to be dealt with. What is cool about SPV is that we have already gone through that game and they know that we are not going to fall for it, but with all of these other companies they are doing it, so this is a very long process and, like I said, this is a long process and it will be months before I sign anything.
KNAC.COM: Can you give us a preview of the new Demons And Wizards disc -- will it be a “Volume 2” kind of thing or something totally different?
JON: Well, it is never going to be completely different because it is me and Hansi, it is not going to be us going and experimenting with rap and country or some shit like that. (laughs) We can guarantee the people that it is going to be a strong melodic metal record. So far I am very, very excited about it. The cool thing is that beside the fact that Hansi and I have been friends for eleven years now, we just discovered that we can actually write songs together a few years ago which is a very special thing. It is something that doesn’t happen very often, two people having chemistry writing together, it just feels right. That first album was just the beginning, it was just the first one and it was a really strong record. In some territories we blew away the sales of Iced Earth and Blind Guardian records, and we got a Grammy nomination in Germany, so it was a big deal, but it was just the beginning. Even after being friends for over a decade, we are just now discovering the artistic bond that we have so I am excited because I know that we can destroy that album with this next one. We are still learning about each other and what we can do.
KNAC.COM: When do you guys get the chance to write or is it strictly through the mail that you exchange tapes?
JON: He has come over and the last time we did the album all through the mail except for one song, which was the first song that we ever wrote back in ’97. It was when I had a couple of days off of a promotional tour for, I think, for the “Days Of Purgetory” thing and I ended up hanging out at Hansi’s house for a couple of days and I just started fucking around with his guitar and he just started singing and we looked at each other and went, “That is cool as shit, lets record it!” So, we went over to the studio and we wrote “My Last Sunrise” and at that point we didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but that is the only song that we wrote in-person with each other. The rest of them, I did all of the music stuff and sent it over to him and he would work on the vocal melodies and some lyric ideas and we worked on the lyrics together. This time, he is going to come over here in July between the festivals that he has got going on, and we are going to do some more face to face writing and, hopefully, have things pretty much done by the time he leaves here. Then Richard and I will record the album in maybe late summer/early fall, and then Hansi can do the vocal parts whenever he gets the chance. It is going to be cool -- I am really psyched about it. I can just imagine what he is going to bring to the table. It is so nice having a partner like Hansi because he is very experienced in all facets of it. I mean, he has been dealing with the business facets of it like I have for the entire history of this band, and then we have this artistic thing together that I have actually never felt with anybody else, so it is a very cool thing and it is a lot less pressure on me. In Iced Earth 90% of the weight is on my shoulders and in Demons And Wizards it is a fifty-fifty deal.