Jul 16, 2013

The well oiled machine that is Iced Earth

I walk into the hotel and standing there is Iced Earth. I know it’s unethical of me to try and get the exclusive interview now but the journalist in me wants to know their story. Waiting for the press conference to begin just doesn’t seem that appealing. I wonder why. I try my luck but the band is reluctant and asks me to ask their tour manager, who says I'll get ample time after the conference anyway (he’s right). 2 photographs, 1 of which was blurry, and I let them go.

Iced Earth
The questions began flowing from the guy in front. He asks his questions. I’ve done my research and I start by asking whether the line-up changes over the years have helped or destroyed the original sound. Jon Schaffer, the only remaining member from the original line-up answers: "I think it’s necessary. Surviving as a mid-level heavy metal band is difficult and there are a lot of different challenges that go on for the whole spectrum of life and business. So, it does make it challenging but everyone that’s come into the band has put their unique personality into their parts. It’s in the execution of the parts where you see the individuals at."

Luke Appleton
I am curious about their art work, which seems to reflect their use of themes to cultivate their sound. "I’m involved in every step – from the concept to every step of the way. It’s actually a time-consuming job," says Jon. Is it as important as the music, I ask. "Yes, it’s all connected – it’s very important because there’s always a theme running through ‘Iced Earth’ records at least 90 percent of the time. I like to have the whole package so that the whole thing makes sense. From the kind of tones you choose for the instruments to the tones in the art, it’s all got to fit.”

They are in Bangalore a year later than they were supposed to be and from their press release with the cancellation then, it seemed like they really wanted to experience playing here. But they’re clueless about the City. "I really didn’t know what to expect. The food’s amazing and we’re going to a temple later today. I wish we had more time to check out the Indian culture but I hear Bangalore’s a metropolitan city so I guess there’s not a lot of that," says Jon.

The sound of this band is probably defined by what it was when it began its journey in 1985. But it's been a long time since and I'm curious if the songwriting process has change. "It’s not really changed. I don’t know, it just comes. It’s really hard to describe. It’s a different process from coming out and performing. That, to me, is a complete opposite of the way my brain works. I really like to get focused when I’m writing and not have distractions around me. To come up with riffs and stuff is one thing. But arranging and building songs and all that stuff is an emotional process and there’s a lot of pressure involved that I certainly create for myself. I think that’s the way you get the best performance. We’re all under a lot of pressure this summer because we’re playing shows and getting ready to record the new album. Raphael’s come into a situation where he’s had to learn a lot of back cataloguing and the new stuff. So we’re all feeling the pressure, which is a good thing because at the end of the day, people perform the best under pressure. It really shows the test of your mettle and what you’re made of," Jon tells me.

Jon Schaffer
I am content with this answer but I pry further and question him whether the lyrics precede the melody. "The lyrics are always last for me. It’s all about the music and the melodies. We frame the lyrics to fit in. Normally, it starts with a theme – like a lot of times, we come up with a title or maybe just a riff that ends up leading to a title. But the theme starts to blow up very early in the process and sort of unfolds.”

I look down at the questions I scribbled down an hour ago. I’ve asked many of them to other bands in the past. This isn't what I want to know, I admit to myself. Are you calm or angry when you write, I prod. The band laughs and Jon says, "Am I calm or angry while writing? A little bit of both. You’ll know when you hear the parts. It depends on what particular emotion is happening at that time."

There's a point in the conference where Stu confesses that the band is always jetlagged. Does touring become rehearsal itself, I ask. "You can rehearse as much as you can until you actually start making stupid mistakes because you’ve played it so many times. And then you get on the road and it takes at least another four to five shows before things really start to lock up. But in the last tour, we did a lot of shows and in the next tour, we’ll be doing a lot of shows. It becomes like *clicks his finger*. You don’t even have to think about what you’re doing. We’re a pretty well oiled machine at this point," Jon admits, visible pride on his face.

So what's the chemistry like in the studio? Jon says, "We stay till we get it right" and Stu adds, "Especially this summer." Elaborating their summer plans, Jon adds, "We’ve been living together at this place in Germany which is kind of like a castle. We’ve been rehearsing the old and new stuff. There’s a studio there we’ll be recording. We do like 9 days and then go and do some more festivals and then come back for 9 days and then more festivals. It’s like bam, bam, bam."

Is there ever a break from the music? All the band members shake their head. Stu decided to say more than just three words this time. “This is what we eat, breathe and live. If we’re not on tour, we’re preparing for other songs or writing. There’s always something going on."

Stu Block
I'm eager to know Raphael's story. He plays the drums for three other active bands and from the looks and fact that he has not spoken yet, looks the simplest of them all. In his Italian accent, he compares the experience with Iced Earth to all the other bands he has played for. "This is totally new and high level. Working with these guys means a lot to me and I understood so many things in the last month about why they are where they are. Because they work so hard. I’ve never met anybody who works as hard as they do. Nothing can compare to this," he says.

Is there a lot of pressure on you from the band? "We put him in a corner sometimes," jokes Stu. Then I hear Raphael's voice again. "It’s challenging but I always think that life brings you challenges and can accept them or not. But if you don’t, you always stay in the same position. There’s pressure but everything’s been great so far. In the first show, we had ten minutes to set up and after that, we started in the best way pressure-wise to perform to an audience. That’s rock ‘n’ roll."

The press conference is over. I get my autograph and while passing Troy, ask him if he ever speaks. "Not really," he tells me. After some TV interview they look tortured doing, I go up to Raphael and have a little chat. Excerpts:

What does it mean for you to be a part of Iced Earth?
I know the band since I was like 14. Iced Earth was one of the first few bands that I heard right after Iron Maiden. I know pretty much all the material. But knowing the songs and playing them are very different things. I played many of the old classics like ‘Watching Over Me’ and ‘Burning Times’ when I was a kid. I played with a band and I showed them how to play these songs on stage.

Raphael Saini
Is there a lot of pressure on you taking over where Brent Smedley left off?
It wasn’t easy joining them because I had to learn many, many songs. The new album is coming and during rehearsals, we practice mostly the new stuff. I’ve been doing this as a job way before this band. So I’m kind of used to crazy situations. Actually, I’ve had situations worse than this one. For example, I’ve been called 24 hours before a tour and had to learn 11 songs in one night. That’s why I think they have me - because they knew that in such little time, I could handle it. Jon was impressed by my playing and stuff.

You feel much pressure but you’ve to find a way to keep going. If not, you just get crazy. So keep it calm and do the best. So far, everything has been great but not easy. I’m enjoying it but not 100 percent because there are so many things I’ve to learn. I want to make it perfect for the people because I know they care so much. I care about doing the best for the people. I think, who is realizing this, more than me, are my friends. They’re all ‘Wow!’ and see the pictures. For me right now, it’s different because I have to make it right. That’s the main thing. It’s not about ‘hey, it’s cool’. It’s about people enjoying it. Brent was a great drummer. He did a lot and I want people to be happy with me. Right now, we’ve been practicing so much everyday for the last month – new songs, old songs. I care about making the new album the best I ever did in my life so people will really accept me.

I smile, wish him luck and then turn to Troy. I tell him I want to know his story. This time, he's a little more forthcoming. It's probably the cigarette he’s smoking that's doing that. Excerpts:

What kind of music do you listen to outside of Iced Earth?
To me, there are only two kinds of music in the world – good and bad. And I listen to good music. I mean I’m from Indiana! It’s where bluegrass started, jazz, Wes Montgomery. I’m pretty varied style-wise as far as the music I listen to - everything from the heaviest of heavy metal to jazz to bluegrass. And in all those genres, there’s good and bad that I consider in my own personal opinion. I like music. Period. And if you feel what somebody’s doing, I don’t care what kind it is, you feel it. That’s what music’s supposed to do – move you emotionally. The guys that are really talented at that, I don’t give a shit about what they’re playing, as long as they’re doing that. Guitar-wise: bluegrass Tony Rice, David Grier, Stefan Grossman; Fingerstyle players – Doyle Dykes. Heavy metal players, there’s everybody from Neil Zaza to Vinnie Moore.

I’ll go home and grab my acoustic guitar and play a bluegrass tune. I’ll go do a blues thing. I played the KISS convention before I came here. I’m not a jazz guitarist but I do play quite a few different styles. Iced Earth’s given me a really cool vehicle to explore all kinds of different guitar ideas, sounds, tones. A lot of people don’t realize how varied you can get inside of a genre if you want to, like if you wanna sneak a bluegrass lick on a metal song. I’ve done it but I won’t tell you which one. They never found out because it’s how you play it. An A chord’s an A chord but if you play it through a huge Marshall stack at a 110 decibels and cram the fucking shit out of it, it’s metal, you know. You play it lightly and it can be a jazz chord. It’s just how you play it.

I don’t narrow it down to metal. I play in a metal band and Iced Earth is Jon Schaffer’s vision. I work within that vision and do what I do. And I get to express myself as much as I want to musically within that that fits in Jon’s vision.

What is ‘Jon’s vision’?
Iced Earth. You’ve been listening to it for the last 25 years and it’s his vision. I mean, the songs move people. I’ve seen guys holding up their father’s medals from war over ‘Watching Over Me’ and falling apart right in front of me, making me fall apart on stage. And then you’re standing on stage with the guy who wrote that and ‘A Question Of Heaven’ and ‘Dante’s Inferno’ and ‘Dystopia’ and stuff. The guy’s a fucking amazing songwriter. I can come up with guitar riffs all day long but I’m not a songwriter. He is. He can take all those little things and turn them into a magical moment. That’s the stuff that separates the men from the boys. I’m very proud to be on stage with him because he’s an amazing musician. And he knows what he wants, which I bet a lot of fucking metal musicians don’t.

Is there any scope for a solo project?
Iced Earth is my life. It’s all I want to do. I dedicate every ounce of energy I have to it. But I do have other outlets like I said.

Troy Seele
Do you have days when you look back and can’t believe the direction your life’s taken? Does this lifestyle ever get tiring?
When you don’t know it, you don’t miss it. I played my first professional gig when I was 13 years old. There used to be bar gigs and stuff and you went back home to your own bed. But this is a lot different than that. I’ve been doing this for six years now and ‘normal’ is a distant memory.

Was the transition to a ‘big band’ tough?

It’s a different level. For me, it was a harder transition because you go from playing in a bar band, which is just jamming. You make a mistake and it’s no big deal because it was in the moment. Iced Earth is precision playing, timing and it takes a lot of practice to get up there and do it exactly at the level. Transition to a big band is a lot more dedication and a lot more focus on a setlist or an album. In Iced Earth, I just do the solos on the albums so, it’s a lot of focus on that one little part. But I’ll do it till I get it right. I don’t care if it takes me one night or a week or whatever. I’ll just keep going till I’m satisfied and Jon goes ‘I’m satisfied’ and I know I’ve done my job.

The 500 word article version of this has been published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on July 16, 2013.

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