'Finally we get to be what a 'proper' heavy metal band is!" - Metal as Fuck talks to Iced Earth's Jon Schaffer

Lock up your honey-based alcoholic beverages, Australia!

Jon Schaffer. I’ve been a bit unkind to the man in my various ‘journalistic’ guises over the years, for no other reason than he seemed an easy target – and when there’s fish in a barrel that need shooting, there’s always people like me milling about waving firearms. I did once rename him the ‘Jeff Albertson of heavy metal’, so humourless and dour did he seem to me to be in the countless interviews I’d seen, read and heard with him over the years. So imagine my surprise when, on having a chat with the man himself to celebrate his band Iced Earth’s imminent return to these shores for a whistlestop two date ‘tour’ next month, I was found to have been completely wrong about the man! Intense, single minded and firm of purpose yes, but dour, humourless? Not a bit of it. Fer chrissakes, on the day we chinwag he’s recovering from a stay-up-till-4-AM-Mead-drinking session with IE throatsmith Stu Block, something which surely automatically qualifies him for ‘our kinda people’ status. I stand mightily corrected.

But enough about me. Lets talk a bit more about Iced Earth, shall we? I have it in my mind that you are one of heavy metal’s big touring bands, is that right? I’ve always thought you have been committed to heavy touring throughout the band’s (nearly thirty year) career? Would that be true? “I’d like to say yes, but it really hasn’t.”

I stand corrected again. Maybe I’ll conduct the rest of the interview sitting down. Carry on Jon. “The way it went, was that the band, well we formed in Indiana, but essentially we’re a Tampa, Florida band. In the mid eighties there were all these great melodic metal bands in that area – Sirens, Savatage, Nasty Savage, Crimson Glory, Powersurge – those kinda bands. But by 1990 when our first record came out they’d really been replaced by bands like Xecutioner, who became Obituary, and all those other death metal bands. We didn’t want to write that heavy stuff, and we realized pretty soon that it was Europe where we needed to be, you know? But it was very, very hard to get record company funding, that kinda stuff, very very hard. Do you know that in twenty years Iced Earth has only supported three bands on tour? We did ten or so shows in Europe with Blind Guardian, ten or twelve shows out with Megadeth before Dave Mustaine broke up the band and then a few shows in England with Heaven and Hell and that’s it!”

So the touring you are doing now, that’s really something of a dream come true for all metal bands, isn’t it? It’s your reason for being surely? “Let me tell you, we’ve not even been a proper metal band in my opinion for the last eight or ten years. What I have now, is a group of people – not just the guys who are in the band but the guys behind the scenes, you know, crew, management, who are committed to this!’

We’ll touch on this again later, but for now let’s talk about new vocalist Stu Block. Iced Earth have got through probably more than their fair share of vocalists in a career. At this point Schaffer feels the need to interject: “and some of them have been among the best vocalists of all time!”

Indeed they have. As I was saying, having had vocalists of the prowess of Matt Barlow and Ripper Owens onboard, how did you approach getting a new IE warbler? What was the process? Were you looking for another name singer, or didn’t you care where the voice came from, as long as it was good enough – experience or youth? “Actually it was a bit of all of that. What I most wanted though was a good human being. Not someone who just comes along for the ride or is looking for a spring board to a solo career, you know? I wanted someone who could be part of the creative process, who I could produce, someone who could contribute but more than anything wanted to be here! And you know what? Above and beyond anything within the band, I love Stu Block as a human being, which is very important to me.”

And so Iced Earth is a band again? It must be good to have some other guys to share the burden? “Let me tell you, it’s always me that carries the burden, I carry the load. Every day. But yeah it is good to have some great guys in the band to share a little of it with.”

So you say Stu contributes to the creative process. Once the Australian dates are through and you’ve done the Euro festivals, will you start writing with him then? Have you already started? “No man, it’s way too soon. (last album) Dystopia only came out in October, we did some North American shows then, then we did some South American shows came home for a few days, then did another big run of North American shows, we’re going to India, then Australia, then we go to China, then we have a little bit more time off then we go to Europe. We’ve got shows booked through solid to the middle of 2013. You’re going to need a fucking microscope to read the back of the tour shirt!”

He’s laughing at this, and I can tell that finally Jon Schaffer has got Iced Earth where he wants it. On the road. “Yeah man, you know, I love Matt Barlow, whether he’s in the band or out of it he’s my brother. But he could never commit to eight months on the road or whatever, because of his family. I’m not a cop, or a doctor, you know, I’m a metalhead. This is what I do. Also I have a daughter, and I hate to leave her behind but she understands that this is my life, you know? And now finally we get to be what a ‘proper’ heavy metal band is. Like I say, it’s not just the band members. I have four guys in my crew who I can rely on, a manager who’s been with me now for three years who knows how I am, it feels good, brother…”

I’m getting swept along in the tide of optimism myself here. I feel like standing up and cheering!

I don’t however, because I’m a professional and there’s one more question to ask. It’s not from me, but from Andy Dowling, the impossibly young-looking bassist of support act for the tour Lord. He wanted me to enquire as to what Aussie beer might tickle our hero’s fancy in order that he might bring some along as some kind of (burnt) offering, pre show in order to break the ice. So I duly ask the question. Do you drink beer? “Whisky, actually, Johnny Walker Black Label. I drink too much of it every day. I used to drink beer but I just get fat on it. Johnny Walker has no carbs!”

I see. I then outline the Dowling question which is when Jon makes his Mead drinking confession. ‘Me and Stu were up until 4 AM this morning drinking this honey mead.19% alcohol. It’s called Viking Blood. Fucking insane. But tell your man I’ll gladly sample some beer if he brings some along. The crew will drink whatever I don’t for sure!”

You heard the man Mr Dowling – go to it!