Friday, April 26, 2002

Interview: Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth

For a decade, the power metal outfit Iced Earth have stayed true to their roots while the music scene changed around them.

Their sound - which mixes the precise lightning-fast riffing of early Metallica with the melodic sensibilities of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest - has taken a backseat to grunge and nu-metal on the hard music scene. But now, they're hoping to step up to the big leagues.

Iced Earth has recently released a boxed set, "Dark Genesis," which features remastered versions of their first three albums, their original demo "Enter the Realm" and a set of cover tunes from some of their biggest influences - including Iron Maiden, Kiss, Alice Cooper and others.

The band is on the second U.S. leg of their tour in support of the 2001 release "Horror Show," a concept album based on classic horror movie monsters and a few from the real world. Guitarist and bandleader Jon Schaffer says the album is a return to roots.

"The horror theme goes back to the early days of the band," he says. "When I was a teen-ager, one of the things I wrote about most was horror movies. When the band got signed, I moved away from that. This was a kind of return to roots, lyrically and musically as well. There are a lot of elements from the first three albums on `Horror Show.'"

One song that doesn't seem to fit on the album is "Ghost of Freedom," a powerful song from the viewpoint of a soldier who has given his life for his country.

The song has taken on new meaning since Sept. 11, but it's not the first patriotic song the band has done. Their 1998 release "Something Wicked This Way Comes" included a song called "1776."

Balancing patriotism with a largely non-American audience can be a challenge, Schaffer says.

"We've always been a patriotic band, but I was always kind of reluctant to show it in the music," he says. "There are a lot of places around the world that are not America-friendly.

"The first time I did it was on `1776.' It's an instrumental, but there are some very patriotic themes in it. Every American who sees that title, will know what it's about. We just took it one step further on `Ghost of Freedom.'"

Schaffer says much of his patriotism stems from seeing what life is like in the rest of the world.

"Touring the world in the last couple of years, I've grown to really appreciate what we have here," he says. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people (complaining) about America when they have no clue. I wish more Americans would visit other places, so they could see just how good we've got it."

Despite his patriotic stance, Schaffer's homeland hasn't always been as good to him as other places in the world. Iced Earth fans on the European tour got a blistering, nearly three-hour set in a packed arena with elaborate stage designs and theatrical elements. In America, they play on cramped stages in small clubs, with a much lower budget.

"I really wish we could bring (the show) to the States, and we will be able to some day," he says. "Our history is in Europe. We've been touring Europe since 1990, and the status of the band is 10 times bigger there."

The reason for the difference, he says, is the way the American music market is set up. The problem for Iced Earth is that many fans just don't know about the band and its music.

"It's controlled by dollars,"Schaffer says. "Here in the States, the way to promote your band is through radio and MTV, and that costs big, big, big money. Over there, the support of the underground is what makes you."

As far as today's American metal scene goes, Schaffer says he hasn't heard much of it - and what he has heard doesn't appeal to him.

"If you're talking about nu-metal, I think that stuff's a joke," he says. "Metal to me should be very intense, very powerful, very dark and also very melodic. Unfortunately, I think that's typical of our society, flooding the market with a trend."

Schaffer is interested in doing something more ... interesting.

"I think we've got a lot more work to do before we reach the arena level in the U.S., which is our goal," he says. "But I'm sure whatever ends up happening, it's going to be a big step forward."

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