Under No Illusion: An Interview with Iced Earth, pt.1

Under No Illusion: An Interview with Iced Earth, pt.1

artist website

Jon Schaffer (guitar) & Stu Block (vocals)

Part 1

It seems in recent years that every new Iced Earth album has come alongside some kind of momentous event in the band’s history. The Glorious Burden, in 2004, brought Tim “Ripper” Owens into the band, replacing fan-favourite singer Matt Barlow. Framing Armageddon (2007), the second album with Ripper, saw the band embark on a huge two-album concept project which, in 2008 for the second of the pair of albums, brought about Barlow’s return. And now in 2011, he has again dropped out and the next album will see another new singer; an unknown quantity as far as the fans are concerned.

But any conversation with or about Iced Earth at the moment can’t begin without a few words on the departing Barlow, long regarded as the defining voice of Iced Earth. Before retiring from music for a second time this year he played one final tour with the band on the European Summer festival circuit, an opportunity they weren’t afforded the first time he left. Guitarist, founder and leader Jon Schaffer sees this as a suitable ending to their professional relationship. “There’s a lot of love there. Matt’s a very good friend so it was the best way for him to go out. As much as when he came back into the band we had really good intentions, and we thought we could make it work making it kind of a part-time thing, the record industry has just changed so drastically in the last three years that to stay viable – and I still have something to say as a writer – we’ve still got to carry on, and that means we need to tour. And we’re doing that, Matt understands that, he just can’t commit to that. But Wacken [the final show of the tour] was a great way for him to say goodbye. We had a great day, man. I was sad to say goodbye to Matt, I got choked up, I got a little teary because we’ve spent 15 years of our life together, it’s a long time. It was sad, but I’m excited because, you know, what we’ve got coming… I’m re-energised, I’m completely focused and committed, and I finally have a front-man that is, because it’s been almost a decade without a very committed front-man.”

The front-man Jon is of course referring to is Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block, who joined Iced Earth before the Summer tour with Barlow, and has recorded the vocals for new album Dystopia, due out in October. After some try-outs, Block was slotted seamlessly into the Iced Earth fold, contributing to the new album immediately. “We got a load of tapes, and there were actually a couple of other singers we had direct contact with. One from Sweden and another one from the States. But you know, when I saw the look in Stu’s eyes on an Into Eternity video I was like ‘there’s something going on there’. I didn’t know about the voice, we had to try that out, but I could see it, you know? I could just see it, and I was like ‘that’s the kind of spirit that belongs in Iced Earth.’ Robert [Kampf, Century Media CEO] got in touch because Into Eternity was on Century, so he got in touch with their old A&R guy, he got in touch with Stu and connected us. We started out with trying a few old Iced Earth songs, and when I heard that I was like ‘I really need to get this guy behind a real microphone with a compressor and hear his voice in a better environment’. I sent him a couple of instrumental new pieces, End of Innocence was the first song we wrote together, so I sent him that just a couple of days before he came just to see what he could come up with, and actually what became Dark City also. So I sent him those two tracks just a couple of days before and, dude, we just gelled instantly. I was like ‘this is it, this is good.’”

“ it’s been almost a decade without a very committed front-man ”
– Jon Schaffer

Indeed, Jon is very enthusiastic when it comes to recounting the writing and recording process of Dystopia. “The thing is man, everyone’s been able to contribute before, but I have a pretty high threshold of quality; I’m not gonna use people’s ideas just to be nice to ‘em. It needs to work, it needs to be up to the level that I expect for all Iced Earth stuff, and he’s got that. I mean, I wasn’t sure if he was writing the chorus melodies for Into Eternity at the time, so I asked him that over the phone because there’s big hooks there, and if you’ve got two guys that can write a big vocal hook: awesome! Fuckin’-A! Lyrically we worked together on it. That’s the first time I’ve ever shared lyric duties with anybody. It was fun! The whole process was fun, and energising, so I’m very happy, very happy with the result.”

The process of trying Stu out on old Iced Earth material, and then developing the new material, led both men to discover that he was capable of a lot more than he’d been doing in his career so far. Into Eternity’s material uses death metal growling and very high pitched wails, and not a lot in between those two extremes, but Iced Earth music requires more than that. “You don’t really write with a singer in mind. You have the song, and then you have to have a singer that’s capable. And every Iced Earth singer, with the exception of the guy on the first album, was capable of doing what needed to be done for the songs; they had the range. Stu has a much bigger range than before. He’s discovered his middle voice. We coached him and pushed him and got him to work in a different area, which is where most of the Iced Earth stuff lives. When you’ve got that kind of talent, that’s one thing, and when you’ve got that attitude, the killer attitude and the willingness to try everything, and to be coached, then that’s something else. And that’s exactly what Matt was like too, when he joined originally. Totally willing to do everything to make it the best it could be. No ego resistance, no bullshit, no drama, and that’s the same with Stu.”

Stu himself has also enjoyed the path of discovery that has come about through being in Iced Earth. “I knew I could sing, but I didn’t know I could put that buzz behind my voice. I’d never really done it before, it just came out of nowhere. As a singer I have to be open to every idea. Especially knowing that these guys have been doing this for so long. Jon has been doing this for a long time. Why would I fight that? There’s really no point. It’s like a new toy. I’m really excited with what I’ve been able to develop, and I can’t wait to tour it, I can’t wait for the rest of the people to listen to it.”

Jon is only too keen to elaborate on that excitement from his point of view as well, and why he’s so enthusiastic about this line-up of the band and this album; “It’s exciting and satisfying for me too because I love it when you’ve got somebody who’s willing to learn and be coached and when you see that they’re listening to what you tell ‘em, and they do it, you see ‘wow it works!’ and you see the lights go off, I love it man. I mean, I love producing good singers, I love being involved in that process; pushing and pushing and seeing what we can work out. And it’s communication that’s really important. You have to be able to communicate to get the best out of any of these guys, whether it’s Hansi [Kursh] or Matt or Tim or Stu. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best singers ever.”

Tim Owens’ time in the band was less assured, even though both of the albums completed with him on vocals are stronger than the resulting final album with Barlow, and looking back, Jon is able to explain why that was, and why it’s different, and far more positive with Stu. “Tim’s an amazing singer. He’s got a natural talent that most people don’t have. But the spirit behind it, which is what I’m talking about when I saw Stu on the videos, is something that didn’t really gel in Iced Earth. It’s a different thing, a different kind of energy. Tim has all the physical abilities. In fact it’s frightening how easy it is for him to do the stuff that he does. Like, weird. He has this way of going from a chest-voice, slipping right into falsetto. He doesn’t even really have to work at it. But Tim was always thinking about the solo career. And dude, go for it, that’s cool. But this is Iced Earth, and I want somebody that’s in. There’s some kind of a connection on a higher level with this, I think. I know Stu’s committed, I could tell right away. We’re committed to each other and this is a long-term thing. I know there’s been a lot of instability in the line-up over the last decade and we haven’t really had a committed front-man, but we do now. When I say we’re coming back with a vengeance I’m not fucking around.”

“ I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best singers ever ”
– Jon Schaffer

Understandably, without having yet been able to hear anything from the new album, Iced Earth fans are apprehensive about the band’s new singer, where it might take them, and above all what they’re going to sound like. Especially live with the old material they know and love. From Jon’s perspective he feels like those kind of feelings, and the misapprehensions a lot of people formulate about the band, are out of his hands and that the true fans will trust that he and the band won’t let them down. “They need to just have faith. I mean, I know what the fuck I’m doing. All these people who were saying ‘I can’t believe you’ve got a death metal singer, what is this?’ Dude, come on, give me a little more credit. I can’t control the illusions that people have about the band. I deal with the real world of Iced Earth. I cannot control what the journalists say, or the illusions the fans have about the way things work in the band, or the creative process, the production process, the songs, bla bla bla. As soon as the master gets turned in, I’m out! It’s illusion world! But I know what the hell I’m doing, they don’t need to worry. I’m back!”

For a band who released three albums in the period from 2004 to 2008, plus a live DVD, and have toured heavily for the last two years, it’s hard to imagine what Jon is back from, exactly. “For a long time I was in a pretty serious funk, and really burnt out and really tired,” he explains, “I finally took a vacation and feel more energised and focused than I have probably my entire career, but certainly more than I have in the last 10/12 years. There’s a lot of positive energy behind this. The fans just need to understand that. You can’t make somebody do something they don’t wanna do, Matt doesn’t wanna do this. He’s a cop. He was a part-time guy, playing metal on the weekends kind of thing. That’s not what Iced Earth is, Iced Earth is a way of life. I started this and made this commitment 25 years ago. They need to just have confidence and have faith, and I know some people aren’t gonna like it, that’s OK, they’ve got the old albums to listen to. We are moving forward, on the other hand.”

Recent Posts