INTERVIEW: Jon Schaffer – Iced Earth

Almost 30 years ago in Florida, Jon Schaffer formed ICED EARTH. Since then he has been dedicated to making the conceptual and historical metal masterpieces in his head a reality. With the impending release of the band’s 12th studio album, Incorruptible, this year, we talked to Jon about the band’s quest for independence, the themes and history behind the songs, and how throughout everything they have remained Incorruptible.

ICED EARTH are not only a band who have stood the test of time but also are able to keep growing their fanbase with each album, especially since Dystopia, what do you think it is about ICED EARTH that has not only endured but prospered over all these years?

Jon: Well, I don’t know man, I mean I think it’s all a matter of perspective but I believe what gives ICED EARTH longevity is just being honest, not contrived, and just doing what comes natural and it’s heartfelt music that comes from a real place and the fans know that. We know we’re not going to please all the people and we don’t even care, we don’t try to. The real fans get that and they appreciate it because they know, as the title of the album says, ICED EARTH is Incorruptible. The vision that I’ve had for this band since the very beginning it’s just not corruptible it is what it is, it’s still the same thing moving forward and complete dedication to heavy metal.

Is that what the new album title Incorruptible means to you?

Jon: Yeah, that’s it. There are some people that thought that it had something to do with politics but it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the vision for the band that set forth nearly three decades ago. Well, it’s 33 years since I started it, and 27 years since the first album came out so technically it’s over three decades and it’s a long time of devotion to a singular vision you know?

You’ve had a few small disputes with labels and the industry in that time, is independence something you strive towards?

Jon: Yeah, for sure I mean the concept of ICED EARTH being more independent it’s crucial to our survival. To me, it’s always been there where we’ve been under some you know, difficult contracts on and off during the years but where we’re headed with building a headquarters and studio it’s the key to survival as far as I’m concerned for a band that’s established and the way the model of the music business is changing rapidly. It’s very important for us to be in control of our own destiny.

I’m seeing that with a lot of bands and companies now, people want to support what they’re passionate about and them being able to do without going through a company that they might not necessarily trust, that feels liberating to the consumers.

Jon: Yeah, for sure, I think it’s good for everybody. I think time’s gonna tell how we roll out our future model for ICED EARTH, I’m kinda formulating that now and doing a lot of thinking about options and we’re free now so we’re in a very good position to be able to take the next steps accordingly.

Building the headquarters is a pretty big step towards that. How did it help everything?

Jon: I wouldn’t say it helped with stuff like master tracking because master tracking is pretty intense because once you got everybody there and everybody’s getting paid then you can’t just do whatever you want. But I can tell you from the songwriting and pre-production standpoint it was a lot more relaxed than it has been in recent years and that’s a good thing. There’s always a tremendous amount of pressure going into something like this but the headquarters serves as a multifaceted force, we still have some construction work to do on certain parts of the building but the were happening of all our gear and archiving of the history from the past and then our office and studio and living quarters and that kind of thing, it’s a great concept for us to utilise and I think with the direction of the band and where we’re headed or could potentially be headed. I mean I am going to be starting my own record company for the purpose of doing my own production, but will we licence to labels? That’s possible. Everything is kind of open right now and there’s a lot of things being discussed and I’ve been thinking about which direction we’re going to take all this, but it’s definitely a cool position to be in you know. But I mean dude come on after 27 years of living and surviving through the old slavery model I think I’ve earned it.

I saw you say you had this idea back in a 1996 interview, so it’s been in the works for a while.

Jon: Yeah, like I said it’s been in my head a really long time, it’s just the realities of the situation back then, there was no way I could have done that. But now things have changed so much and you see the old model collapsing. It’s a weird time, I think for bands that are established it’s actually a pretty exciting time, it’s a little bit like the wild west. You do the right thing and you can stand to really finally profit what you deserve, and in collapsing model, a band has to be able to do that because the old business model which is them holding most of the cards and having all the power when they’re collapsing then it makes everything more difficult. I just see that this is an opportunity where 20 years ago when I was talking about this we didn’t really have that opportunity but now being able to have access directly to your fanbase is a big thing, and there’s a lot of ways to build this structure that even didn’t exist 20 years ago. There are cool possibilities here you know? It’s just gonna take some planning and going step by step and we don’t have to make a decision tomorrow we have plenty of time and I think this album sets us up in a really good way no matter what we do because the whole band very proud of it and I think the reaction from the fans will be very positive overall.

You said in the press release that you have a gut feeling that Incorruptible will go down as an ICED EARTH classic.

Jon: Yeah, I felt pretty early in the writing that we were on our way to making an ICED EARTH classic but I can’t say that the fans always decide that, so it’s not really up to me, it’s not up to us. I just feel it in my bones that there’s something special happening and I knew it early, we all did, as things developed more and more, but due time will tell. I can’t really concern myself with that kind of stuff because obviously if bands knew what the magic formula for making a classic record was we would all do it all the time. But to me, I’m proud of the record. I’m happy with it and I always make the records for me and we make them for us number one and hope it resonates with people.

In terms of lyrics, this one has a lot of moments from history crafted into songs, what makes you want to write about a specific moment in history?

Jon: In the case of Clear The Way the Irish brigade at Fredericksburg, that’s been bubbling for 15 years at least with me. I’ve been wanting to write a song as a tribute to those guys and their sacrifices and everything. It depends on the time man, there’s always things happening and sort of just follow and let my spirit be the guide as to when it’s right. At some point, I want to write a song about Auschwitz and the Napoleonic wars and it’ll happen it just wasn’t on this album cycle. Different things happen at different times, Stu wanted to write about the Vikings so The Great Heathen Army came up and I was like “I can get behind that dude”, I started working and as soon as I wrote the intro I knew that was going to be the beginning of the record and the song’s a good opener and everything, pretty traditional ICED EARTH sounding. Also, I had wanted to write about the pirates for a while (alluding to Black Flag). It’s just one of those things that just happens when you think about stuff, some ideas I could’ve come up with 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago and then they come to fruition but it’s not really contrived. When we go into songwriting mode we’re going just open you know? Just whatever comes, what energy is going to hit us? A lot of times I’ll say “this is the theme we’re going to hit on, we’re going to hit on the Vikings, the pirates, the Irish brigade, the native Americans, the tragic love story, the whatever!” We’ll start with a title and build the soundscape based on it, and it doesn’t even have to be the final title but at least the theme of the song. So that you can close your eyes like when I wrote Clear The Way before there were any lyrics or vocal melodies you could listen to that and if somebody said that it was about the Irish brigade you’d go “oh yeah, that makes total sense” because you can hear it in the music. I always try to achieve that level of soundscape first, before the lyrics and vocal melodies so that we’re really on track and then when we get to that point it’s like the icing on the cake.

Black Flag is about the pirates, which is a story that must be fairly relatable for a touring metal band right?

Jon: Oh yeah! Absolutely dude, fucking A! [laughs]. And I think a lot of people will get off on that. I have to say it’s one of my proudest achievements from a lyrical writing standpoint with Black Flag because the history of the pirates is pretty fucking complex to do in a 4 and a half minute song. But I think I was able to hit the important points and do it in a really cool cadence and melodically and then Stu delivered it masterfully you know, he sang the fuck out of it. It’s a highlight of the record I think.

I feel like a lot of metalheads will relate to this one as it talks about being the outcasts and going against the crown, and heavy metal is the outcast genre.

Jon: Exactly, that’s right, it does fit with us that’s why we actually call ourselves the pirates, it started off as a joke when we were wasted one night, half Viking half pirate but it’s actually pretty much who we are. That’s our inner brotherhood within the band and in the crew, only two of us have actually been patched as pirates but it’s definitely a thing with us.

Ghost Dance is about Native Americans, correct?

Jon: Yes, it is a tribute to the native Americans. I had considered a few different themes but it was always going to be about the native Americans but I thought about calling it Trail Of Tears but after that, I was considering The Battle Of Little Bighorn and making the lyrics go in that direction and then I just decided “you know what? this doesn’t need any lyrics” it says everything it needs to say musically, it’s the perfect example of a soundscape where it’s a tribute to the native American spirit and it’s there, you can hear it. I just decided that since we haven’t done an instrumental since Something Wicked This Way Comes or maybe there was one on Framing Armageddon or on Crucible but whatever, but this is a really great instrumental, it says exactly what I want it to say.

And what about Brothers?

Jon: It’s about me and Stu, we wrote it together lyrically. It was a part of the plan when we were discussing early on, I said “hey what kinda stuff are you thinking cause I’m going to start putting music together” and he said “man we should write one together about our brotherhood”. It stems from Stu and I but it’s also about the band in general.

Do you have any plans for the UK anytime soon?

Jon: Not immediately, we have a handful of festivals this summer and then we’re touring north America after that, and then we’ll be back in Europe for next winter and I’m sure the UK will be part of that.

Incorruptible is set for release on June 16th via Century Media Records.

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