Rock Confidential caught up with Iced Earth founding member and guitarist Jon Schaffer to discuss the band’s new effort released on January 21, Plagues Of Babylon. This is the second studio effort with singer Stu Block on board. With two records under their belt this has the making of an exciting long-term alliance. The album is a part concept album that deals with the theme of the apocalypse. It’s been done to death I know, however Schaffer has a way with telling stories through song and he’s given it a fresh perspective.
You just released your new album Plagues Of Babylon. It’s the second album with Stu (Block) on board on vocals. How much input did he have on this effort?
Well, we used the same formula that we used on Dystopia. When it came time to do his vocal parts he has a lot to do with that. Some of the vocal melodies I wrote myself, others he wrote on his own and others we wrote together. The majority of the songs we wrote the melodies and the lyrics together. We used the same formula as we did on Dystopia.
This is a partial concept record, is that correct?
Yeah, the first six songs on the album are part of a story. You have to think of an old Rush record like 2112. One side of the album was a concept record and the other was individual tracks.
Is there a chance once Iced Earth hits the road that you’ll be performing those six tracks that tell the story?
We will not. I think it would be a bit too much. The album is too new I think. The problem here is that bands hit the road within a few days of the album hitting the shelves and it really doesn’t give fans enough time to absorb the material. The problem we have in Iced Earth is that with 11 albums issued we have fans of every era. I think if we focus on one particular album or era the fans wouldn’t appreciate that at all. With each album that comes out it makes it very difficult to come up with a set list. We are do a big chunk of the apocalypse storyline but we’re not doing them all in a row. We’re spreading it throughout the set.
The last time Iced Earth came through Portland you were co-headlining with Symphony X and you played a lengthy set. I imagine it’s got to be a huge challenge to draft a set list that not only has a good flow, pleases fans and also pleases you as the performer.
It’s definitely a challenge. I think for this upcoming tour Michael (Poulsen) from Volbeat had a lot to do with it. We toured with them recently and I was talking to him about drawing up a set list for this tour and he said “I’d love to take a shot at coming up with a set list fort you!” Michael has been a huge fan of the band – he goes back to when the first album came out. Michael is a huge music fan in general but he really loves Iced Earth. So I gave him a shot. He came back with a list with like 50 songs. (laughs) Some which are pretty long and I was like are you kidding me?! (laughs) We sat there together with the list and we whittled away at it and we came up with what I feel is a pretty special set list. There are songs that either haven’t been performed before or that haven’t been performed since that particular album cycle or touring cycle. It’s pretty cool. We have our work cut out for us.
You’ve had a revolving door of singers and musicians that have come and gone through Iced Earth over the years. There are some that are opposed to the changes that take place because they are such rabid fans of particular eras. You’re a visionary like Michael Schenker and Yngwie Malmsteen who have gone through their fair share of line-ups. What do you make of some fans’ inability to adapt to these changes?
I frankly don’t care what people think. It doesn’t matter what people say. Wwhat matters is what we do. The percentage of fans that think that way is relatively small. I think around 5% or so. If you take a professional sports team they change players all the time — but they are still the same team. I don’t spend too much time thinking about or entertaining the thoughts, opinions or delusions because I’m always steering the ship forward. I can’t concern myself with that fan mentality. I live in the “real” world of Iced Earth 24/7 and I just can’t get consumed by all of that.
You have a new drummer in the band.
Yes, we have Jon Dette who completed the second part of the Volbeat tour. As you know he’s played in Slayer, Testament and filled in for a while in Anthrax. He’s great. Good musicians like to play good music and like to get involved in something that is very professional. We have a top notch core group of guys in this band. Life happens. Being a top notch heavy metal band isn’t easy. People that pop off about shit that they don’t have a clue about wouldn’t last five minutes in this industry, much less 30 years.
You rolled out some dates. There’s some markets that you won’t be hitting this time around. I’m assuming you’ll be back in North America for more dates later in the year?
Of course. We’re just getting started at this point. This is just the first round of touring for the Plagues Of Babylon touring cycle. We just got done touring two months across Europe with Volbeat and now we’re starting our headlining world tour which we will tour through August of 2014. I’m taking September off. I haven’t had a vacation since about 2009. It’s not like I “just” play guitar in Iced Earth. There’s a serious business here to run. I think my guitar gets about 5% of my time and everything else is managing and maintaining to help push Iced Earth forward. I need a vacation. I don’t want to hear or deal with anything related to Iced Earth for at least a month — no computer, no cell phone, nothing. I just need to disconnect for about a month but we will be right back at it after that. I’m sure there will be another round through the U.S. and possibly another round through Europe.
What do you do in your down time?
I don’t get much of that but like I said the last time that I took a vacation was in 2009. I spent most of my time on that vacation scuba diving. I’d love to do that again. I like to read but nothing that will make me angry. I like to read stuff that’s relaxing and that is cool. Right now I’m reading a Johnny Cash biography that Michael (Poulsen) gave me that is pretty cool. I want to read and be left alone. It takes me about a week to 10 days to decompress and start to relax. If I can do something like scuba diving, white water rafting, reading, sitting on a beach or heading to the mountains that would be fine by me.
I imagine Sons of Liberty will get fired up again at some point.
Absolutely it will, but for the time being there’s simply not any time to do it. Iced Earth is on fire and I just take time away from that. I also get asked about Demons & Wizards all the time. Of course Hansi (Kürsch) and I will do another Demons & Wizards album but it’s just a matter of time. I think this group of guys has great chemistry and I don’t know if Jon Dette will stick around. I hope he does because I think he’s a great fit but we’ll have to wait to see how he feels after the end of the world tour. I just can’t look at these guys and say to them “Okay guys I know Iced Earth is on fire but I’m taking a few months off to work on a new Demons & Wizards album.” I can’t do that. I will say that when we get together to make a new Demons & Wizards album that we do it correctly and we give that the attention that it deserves. I’d love to tour behind the record. The Sons of Liberty is a grass roots underground project that does have a loyal following. I will do that again at some point. I also have talked to Michael (Poulsen) about doing a project together. I want to do a lot of stuff but Iced Earth comes first.