I spoke to Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth recently to discuss the new album Incorruptible (Out now on Century Media records).
Your new album, Incorruptible will be released in June. Where did the title come from?
It had nothing to do with politics – I’ve been asked that. It just pretty much describes the vision of Iced Earth from the beginning. This is the end of our recording contract, and it says a lot about who we are.
So staying true to what you believe and not compromising.
As the main songwriter, how do you tend to write – do you shut yourself away somewhere or are you constantly writing even when on tour?
I shut myself away. To me those are two very different kinds of energy. I’ve never really been one to write on the road, I might come up with the occasional riff or something, but that’s not really songwriting, that’s coming up with parts. Songwriting involves a much deeper level of detail.
Is it the riffs you start with and build from there?
It depends. Normally yes but it can go any way. Typically it starts with the theme for a song, the subject matter. Sometimes a riff will inspire a theme but usually it’s the other way round. It doesn’t necessarily mean a final title, but if I’m going to write a song about the history of the pirates or the Irish Brigade or whatever on this record, the viking thing, then I come up with that concept then I try to create the soundscape that fits that. Then by the time we get to the point of focussing on lyrics and vocal melodies, that’s at the very end of the process because I always try to come up with a musical arrangement that will grab you and hold you without the vocals, so then anything we do with the vocals will be the icing on the cake. I like to create a soundscape that fits the theme – that’s always my goal, so the listener can close their eyes and see that without hearing any vocals or lyrics. Then we add the vocals and lyrics and it gets even cooler for sure. That’s sort of how I do it, but it can be inspired by playing a bass guitar, a keyboard part, or whatever, and it’s a case of “That sounds like something” and catalogue it away, but normally it’s the theme of the song, and I won’t come up with the final title for the song till the very end.
The song Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862) is presumably a reference to the battle of Fredricksburg. What made you decide to write about that?
Well it’s really not so much about the battle as it is a tribute to the spirit of the Irish Brigade. I could easily have gone into that in more depth like I did with Gettysburg. I don’t know, it’s always been there, I’ve been wanting to do that song for a long long time. It’s been bubbling and I finally felt it was the right time to do it. There’s something so tragic about that story that inspires me and moved me many years ago when I first read about them and especially the casualties that they suffered at that particular battle. The time was just right on this particular record.
It must be quite frustrating having ideas bouncing around in your head but them not feeling quite right just yet.
I don’t know if it’s frustrating – many years ago I probably felt that way, but now I know I’m patient enough and if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen. I can feel it bubbling below the surface and when the right energy comes, and I think that’s really what I do as a writer, channel energy and be able to take a particular story in history, even if it’s my own, and put it together in a way that touches someone else in a way they can hear it and somehow relate to it.
There’s a nice mix on the album between the more agressive stuff and the softer stuff. Do you aim for that or is it just how it worked out?
It’s what develops. I have other tracks but in todays age it’s not worth filling up 74 minutes of a CD, it’s too expensive in production and adds to the budget, and so many people don’t buy music any more that it’s not worth doing that, but in the end when I’m thinking about what is going on the album then I start to think about the flow. It never starts off with that in Iced Earth records, I think it’s part of having a dynamic the kind of dynamic we have – a rollercoaster of emotions. So I try and come up with a flow when I’m laying out a tracklist, and I might pull one if I feel we’ve got too many mellow songs, do that kind of thing. I just let the music flow naturally.
I think that’s something a lot of people overlook – the importance of having the tracks on an album in the right order.
It’s very important to me but then again I grew up listening to albums and you probably did too, so it’s a different world now with people’s playlists.
Yeah, listening to an album in full in order is a very different experience to listening to individual songs.
It’s a whole different thing, but you know what I think is killer is, I don’t think it’s enough to save the music business, but the increase in vinyl sales. I have a 12 year old daughter who wanted a record player for her birthday this year. I was like “Cool, of course I’m going to buy you a record player”. There’s a lot of young kids getting into it. I don’t know if it’s the same over here but it’s like that in the states.
It’s the same here. I think people who really enjoy and value music often prefer a physical product, whether it’s vinyl or CD, because when you spend your cash you get a physical product and with vinyl especially you get the big artwork to enjoy.
Absolutely. Also I think my daughter is discovering that it’s a cool social thing to listen to music together, you’re not just listening to it on earbuds by yourself, it’s about the songs, and looking at the artwork together and I think she’s discovering that. I’m all for it, I think it’s great.
You must feel you’ve done something right as a parent.
I don’t know if I had anything to do with it actually. She of course knows I’ve always had a turntable and played records, but I think it’s just something that’s happening in the youth today that’s definitely beyond me.
Some of the tracks are inspired by historical events. Where do you take inspiration for the other songs? Is it events or emotions?
All of the above. On this album the ones that I guess are most historical or battle based would be “Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)”, “Great heathen army”, “Black flag”, then there’s others. What I think is kinda cool about this record which wasn’t contrived is that is has the content that’s been there in some shape or form through the entire Iced Earth history but it’s all on one record, and I didn’t really think about that till now. There’s the biblical references (Seven headed whore), The relic which is Stu’s own story, it’s an original idea he came up with but it has a sort of demonic possession ancient artifact story. There’s a lot of stuff the band came up with, there’s a lot of colours that exist on this record that you could almost go through every Iced Earth record and find something that is similar at least in subject matter or theme.
You recorded the album at your own studio. How did the experience compare to using other studios?
The biggest difference is in pre-production. That’s actually a very crucial part of making records for the way I make them, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me and the challenges we have being an international band, pre-production is crucial in putting together a really solid demo so the guys living scattered around the planet can hear the way it’s going before we get to where it’s game on and we’re paying people a lot of money to do their jobs, we’re paying for flights – we can’t have people saying “How did that part go again”, we need to know before we get in there. I think it’s killer – this is the first record we’ve done there, and I know there’s some work I need to do in the control room to really dial it in but it’s great. It’s not a mix studio yet, we just did master tracking there but I think with the changes I make in the control room there’s a very good chance we could mix in there in the near future. It’s awesome, but like I said, in pre-production it allows me to do very detailed demos at my own speed without being pressured, and I have my equipment there so I’m not working in a guest house. On Plagues of Babylon I was living in Uruguay and had this little guest house with a little setup in one of the bedrooms with like a laptop and a shitty line 6 pedal thing for guitar sounds and it was not an inspiring place to be doing demos really. Now this is master tracking quality, it’s exactly the gear we’re going to be using for the record so it’s great.
I’d imagine with the pre-production because you’re not hiring somewhere then there’s less pressure on time so if you need to take a few more days then you can
We could be that way when we’re doing master tracking too. This time was under a very tight budget because a lot of the financing went into making the studio, the construction and all the stuff we needed to do. I had the majority of the gear, but in the future I think even master tracking will be a little more relaxed although it’s difficult to make master tracking relaxed. You’re in there on a mission and you’ve got guys flying in from all over the place, so you have to stay on schedule. If you just start relaxing and saying we’ll take another week then that ends up costing big money.
And that presumably also pushes out the release date and any tour plans.
Exactly. When I get to a certain point in pre-production then I’m always confident in saying we can deliver by a particular date, but I have to get to a certain point. One thing I’ve learned and one of the reasons I wanted to have this setup is that I don’t want to be rushed any more. It’s difficult, when you book a tour – we had a big tour with Volbeat in 2013, we had a window of opportunity and we had to get that record done, and we were doing European festivals while we’re doing the record and it was a very insane chaotic thing, and once we were committed we were committed. I don’t want to put myself in that position again because it puts too much pressure on you. I’m good under pressure, the whole band is, but there’s a point where it just becomes forcing things to happen rather than letting them happen organically because your management’s put you under a brutal timeline, so we’re not doing that again.
It must have been quite difficult mentally having to switch from touring mode to studio mode and back again.
It is very difficult – for me. Some guys are totally cool with that. I’ve got friends of mine that write stuff on the road, but my music requires a different headspace. I turn into basically a hermit, I get in there and I can go 12, 14 hours and not know what time it is, just stop when it’s done, but some days it’s not like that. It’s definitely a different mindset.
You’ve got a load of European festival dates in the summer (sadly no UK ones though).
Not this summer but I imagine next summer. This summer isn’t really focussed on doing festivals, we’ve got I think 8 or 9 scattered through the summer but I hope next summer we’ll do more. The whole thing was booked when there was a big management change going on so we would never normally want to do it like this. We come over for Sweden Rock then we go home for like 2 weeks then we come back for another festival then home for 2 weeks again, so it’s hard on the bodies doing all that flying. The former management set the wheels in motion for this schedule and once we’re locked in we have to do it. Last time I had to cancel festivals because of my neck surgery so we can’t have that again.
It’s a few years now since your neck surgery. Has it fully recovered?
It’s way better now. It was to the point where it was affecting my right hand, it was really bad, terrible pain. It’s always going to be an issue because once this kind of thing happens it’s there, it lets you know. Tom Araya had exactly the same surgeries I had, Jason Newsted has, Dave Mustaine and a few others, we’re kind of victims of the headbanging thing, the behaviour earlier in our lives. I doing really good but I’ve just got to be careful. Being in the airplane seats for hours where they force your head forward, that’s not good when you have this kind of situation, so you just have to be careful. I’m sure another surgery is coming, but hopefully it’s a long way down the road. I was able to go fourteen years between the first one and the second one when they predicted 8-10. As long as I make the right choices with my line of work then it should be ok.
Presumably you’ve got tour plans for later in the year?
First is going to be the States and Canada, then I believe January in Europe and South America will be squeezed in there somewhere as well, then festivals possibly next summer. I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to happen but we’ll have to see what offers we get.
That’s great, thanks for your time.