Iced Earth is a band that requires little introduction. Since the release of their self-titled debut in 1990, Iced Earth has built a loyal, world wide following that has allowed them to establish themselves as one of the preeminent names in Metal. Despite constant line-up changes, label changes and serious back problems, Iced Earth mastermind Jon Schaffer has guided his band through it all. He speaks his mind openly and honestly, with candor and without pretension. I (Greg) recently had an opportunity to chat with Jon about the departure of Tim “Ripper” Owens, the return of Matt Barlow and the conclusion of the “Something Wicked” saga.
This interview was recently conducted by Greg, aka General Zod on the ProgPower USA Forum.
Greg: Hey Jon.
Jon: Hey man, what’s happening?
Greg: Going well. Is this the beginning or the end of a very long day of press for you?
Jon: It’s getting towards the end. I got about an hour and a half to go.
Greg: OK… well I try not to be too redundant.
Jon: Alright. (laughter)
Greg: Before we jump into it, I know you guys have been bouncing all around Europe, how’s your back holding up?
Jon: It’s doing good. My back is good. The biggest thing is, I have to be careful. Kind of watch what I’m doing on stage. I can’t do the stuff I did years ago. I just have to tone it down a little bit and make sure that I stay fit… exercise. If I run into a problem, things start to feel weird, I have to just be in tune with my body. When we’re doing an extended run of dates, I have a physical therapist go on tour just to prevent any potential problems. But when we’re doing these sporadic dates, like we were in Europe, the festivals mainly, which are on the weekends, if something starts going on I have to get a massage or get to a chiropractor. Whatever I feel like my body is telling me. I just have to listen to my body and not ignore it like I use to.
Greg: Before we get into what you guys have going on right now, I just want to touch on a bit of what’s happened over the last six to nine months, because obviously its been quite eventful for you. One of the more fun things, was you got a chance to open for Heaven and Hell over in Europe . I know those guys are some of your heroes. So, what was that like for you personally?
Jon: It was awesome. It was an honor. I love Ronnie to death. He’s one of the most special people that’s ever graced this industry… from an artistic stand point, and even more so from a personal stand point. It’s a rare thing to meet one of your heroes, and see what an awesome person he is. Ronnie is the real deal. He’s a sweetheart of a person… he’s really genuine… he cares. I don’t know. I just can’t say enough good things about him. He’s one of my favorite guys. Obviously Tony Iommi he’s uhhh… Tony Iommi.
Jon: He’s the Godfather of the Metal riff. That was really cool as well. I’m a big Geezer fan so… it was great. It was an opportunity for us, because the UK really started to open up when we signed with SPV, when we had the release of The Glorious Burden… that is definitely are biggest album to date there. Framing is doing very well also, but The Glorious Burden has been out longer, so it’s sold more. It was one of those things that was just awesome. Our real tour of the UK was an arena tour with Lamb of God and Black Sabbath.
Greg: That’s a nice threesome.
Jon: It was really great. It was a blast.
Greg: So the tour wound down, and all the big news came down. In regard to Tim, the comments he made, he felt the departure was inevitable and best for everyone. He said he had no hard feelings and nothing but great things to say about you. Which sounds a bit curious. If everyone felt that the departure was inevitable, yet there were no hard feelings, can you give us some insight into what led to the split? Was it personal? Was it business? Was it, “Hey, I want Matt back in the band’?
Jon: Well, here’s the thing… Iced Earth has always been, even before Matt was in the band, about spirit in a live setting, and kind of a way of life and a certain dedication. It felt… and all of the guys that were in the band were true believers. And I love Tim’s voice and I think he’s one of the greatest singers that will ever grace this industry and in the studio working with him was just incredible. But live, it did feel… and I’m not saying that he didn’t do well live… he did. But from a spiritual point of view, on stage, it just didn’t feel like it should have. That was when I really started … here’s the thing. We didn’t do that much touring when Tim was in the band. The Glorious Burden tour of the states, it went really well and we had basically a sold out tour everywhere… at least for the A leg. For the B leg we played a lot of Tulsa, Oklahomas and those kind of places, and that was the first time through and there’d be 400 – 500 people. But, The House of Blues, the big leg, it was all sold out everywhere…. we had good reactions. But I sensed something was up, but I was really struggling with my back and I wasn’t really in tune, like I should have been, because I was really hurting on stage. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was that was feeling wrong, I just knew I wasn’t feeling right. Well, on the Framing Armageddon tour of Europe, which is a few years after the fact, I’m doing good and feeling good, but it’s not feeling right on stage. And obviously I never wanted Matt to be out of the band anyway. The way 9/11 effected him and the way if effected me was different, although I considered stopping Iced Earth as well. I considered really heavily joining the military. It was some Navy SEAL buddies that actually talked me out of it and said, “No, you’re going to be a such a bigger help for us if you keep doing what you do, than if you join the military. There’s enough of us, we need you. We need somebody out there spreading the word.” I really listened to that. But it was a consideration. Because I was fucking pissed. I was really feeling like I needed to do something. And when something like that goes down, it makes Iced Earth pale in comparison to the importance of what’s really going on in the world. And it does pale. And now I have a daughter, and she’s the number one most important thing in my life. But before she came into my life, it was the band. But when something like 9/11 happens, it makes you question everything around you, you know?
Greg: Yeah. It was definitely scary. My wife was in Manhattan when that all went down.
Jon: Oh… fuck.
Greg: Yeah… that was a crazy day. But uhhh…
Jon: But Matt went through that too. And that was when he was really analyzing what am I really going to do. And a different path in his life opened up. And I talked into staying in the band. We tried doing The Glorious Burden recording. We tracked all of it. And it just didn’t go well. It was obvious that Matt was disconnected mentally. It wasn’t like all of a sudden he couldn’t sing anymore. He just wasn’t there. In the midst, I decided to stop production and said, “I can’t do this, I can’t release the album this way”. And that’s when I called Tim to come in as a guest singer, just to finish the record, and then I’ll figure out what to do next. Well, one thing led to another, Tim does the record, does an amazing job and on the way home he finds out that Priest and Halford are reforming, which had been a rumor for a couple of years at that point anyway, but it was a reality. So he came into the band, we did it, and uhhh… things went down as I just explained. Here’s the thing… there would have been a change after Part II anyway. And when I heard about Matt doing the thing with Pyramaze, and even though I had seen Matt a few times through the years we never discussed anything concerning music… it was about family… whatever. But when I heard about that, I called him up when I got back and said, “So man, you getting the bug? You missing it?” And he was like, “Yeah… I am missing it.” And the first thing we discussed was doing another project. You know like, starting something else. And uhhh…
Jon: And as the discussions went on, that didn’t really make sense. It was like, “Fuck it man. Let’s do it again. Come back to Iced Earth. If you’re missing it, this is the way to do it.” And he was like, “Yeah man… fucking A, let’s do it.” So that’s how it went down. And I immediately let Tim know. And I know he’s complained about the way it happened and stuff, but the reality is…. You know, I’m not going to get into the details because, I just… it’s not worth it. I’m not feeding the gossip streams.
Greg: Let me ask you this… because it is obviously something that’s been floated out there. And I know you said you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty details… so let me put it to you this way… given the way it went down, if you had it to do over again, would it have been done differently?
Jon: I would have done exactly the same thing.
Greg: Cool. I just wanted to get an idea.
Jon: Here’s the thing… Yeah… OK, it was around Christmas. I’m sorry, that’s difficult. But… BUT… the decision was made and I could have lied.
Jon: And been deceitful and played games through Christmas. That’s bullshit. I’m not the kind of person whose going to… you know, Matt and I talked for two days and the decision was made. It wasn’t like there was months of negotiations going on and whatever, like what was going on with Judas Priest… there was all kinds of rumors being leaked out. And I think that is a much more deceitful way of doing business than just being straight up about it. And the way things were handled on his end after that? Getting a call from a Yoko Ono kind of a situation. Now that definitely exasperated the thing and I was pretty pissed off, but… I wouldn’t, on my end, change the way anything was done.
Greg: Fair enough.
Greg: With Matt back in the band, having done the recording with Pyramaze, they made it clear it wasn’t a touring project, but they didn’t make it sound like it was a one time deal with Matt either. In your discussions with Matt, did you tell him this needed to be his primary and only musical focus? Did he have to step away from Pyramaze to come back to Iced Earth?
Jon: No. But he actually offered to. He hadn’t done the Pyramaze recording yet.
Greg: Oh… OK.
Jon: He told the guys… dude…. he wanted to be in Iced Earth. Obviously, it’s kind of a slight step up.
Jon: Those guys are cool. I met Michael. I told Matt, “Hey, I wouldn’t expect you to not fulfill your obligation. You’re a man of your word. You committed to this and I don’t have a problem with it.” Here’s the thing… it was a project. It was something for Matt to do. They were never gonna tour. It wasn’t going to be a real band situation. And Matt told them, “Maybe you should find somebody else, that’s actually going to be able to the couple of shows a year that you’re going to do and whatever.” But the reality is, with Matt’s lifestyle, he can’t do two bands. There’s no way. It’s not like I told him he couldn’t or anything like that. In fact I told him I think you should finish it. But he gave those guys the opportunity to find somebody else to do the album that would be able to do any kind of shows, if it was going to be two shows a year or whatever. He gave them the opportunity to do that. And they still wanted to have Matt in the band. And from a business stand point… it’s mixed… it’s probably not the smartest thing to do. It is for getting press and promotion, but… you know it depends on what your goals are, and those guys all have jobs and stuff. From that standpoint, it probably was the smart thing to do. From the standpoint of, if you’re really trying to do something with your band it’s not the smartest thing. Whatever. That’s on them. I met Michael over in Germany, when we did the Rock Hard Festival, and said, “Well I guess you’re the guy I have to thank for convincing Matt to come back into the music world.” And he’s a cool dude. And I’m sure he was a little disappointed in it. And they tried to spin it at first and say that you’ll be getting Matt in double doses. And he was saying a lot of stuff that Matt had not approved him to say. Because actually, while all that was going on, Matt’s baby was born. So he’s in the hospital having a baby while these things are being put out there and he’s obviously dealing with something far more important.
Jon: There’s some interesting spin going on at the time but, when Matt came back from the hospital and got situated he set the thing straight. It is what it is.
Greg: That actually gets into my next question. Given Matt’s work/vacation schedule, how often do you see Iced Earth being able to do a tour. Once a year? Is it every two years?
Jon: We’re doing a lot of touring. I know as soon as we announced this all these people were like, “They’re just a festival band… it’s over now… they’re going to be doing this… blah, blah, blah.” And Matt and I are sitting back, kind of smiling, going, “That was easy… it was easy to see this kind of bullshit coming.” Yes, it makes things a little more tricky as far as scheduling goes. He has a pretty flexible schedule. The vacation time he gets applies to his actual shift. When you have four days on and four days off, that turns into a pretty good amount of time. How long he’s going to do that? I don’t know. It’s up to him. That’s a decision that he purely has to make. If he wants to come back full time and really go for it, that’s cool. What this does, if we keep it like it is, it gives me more opportunities to do things that I have been offered so many times that I can’t do. Like producing other bands, doing other projects, and first and foremost, being home with my family more. I’m cool with whatever we do. Because we’re going to be able to do the required amount of touring, which is Europe, that states, the festivals, and South America and Japan, we can work that in on every album cycle.
Greg: Talking about touring, there was a lot of talk amongst fans about how Tim would handle some of Matt’s more emotional, lower register vocal lines. Now people wonder if there’s anything Tim did on Glorious or Framing, that you would like to do live, that is outside of Matt’s range?
Jon: Matt can do all of those songs and sing all of those songs in the proper key. Now… is he going to have to do it different technique-wise? Yeah, probably. Because Tim’s strength is he has a very big sounding falsetto, which is kind of abnormal. Because most people go into falsetto and it gets very thin, because it’s false… it’s a fake voice. But Tim’s sounds huge. Matt has a very wide range as well. He can do a lot of high parts. It may not sound quite as thick, but I think that’s the kind of thing that’s noticed more in recording than it will ever be in a live setting. It’s not a concern of mine. We haven’t run it that. Matt did redo a few songs from Framing. He had already sung the entire Glorious Burden album. It wasn’t technically he couldn’t do it, it’s just that the spirit wasn’t there. That was what was missing. The reason I pulled the plug on it was because it was the biggest, best album that I had ever written, the “Gettysburg” thing was my magnum opus, let’s say, at that point. And I just didn’t feel like there was enough heart put into it and I had to just pull the plug. Purely because of the mental state Matt was in. It had nothing to do with his ability. Those are two different things. Anybody who knows anything about singing knows 80% of it is mental. There’s going to be people who have varying opinions on that and I don’t give a shit and never have.
Greg: You mentioned Matt recorded a couple of songs from Framing for the single, is there any thought of having Matt re-record Part I?
Jon: Yes. It’s gonna happen. It’s because a box set has been planned since the very beginning, since I signed the deal with SPV.
Greg: So Matt doing all of Framing will be part of the box set?
Jon: Yes. It’s only to give it continuity, it’s not to erase anything Tim did.
- end part one
NOTE: The entire interview can be found in the ProgPower USA IX program given to all attendees at this year’s metal fest.