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Jon Schaffer Discusses Iced Earth's Latest, 'Incorruptible'

Jon Schaffer Discusses Iced Earth's Latest, 'Incorruptible' Jon Schaffer onstage with his Gibson Custom Flying V

What does the title Incorruptible mean to you? Is it referencing the band?
It is. A lot of people asked me if it’s referencing anything political, and no, it’s not. It has to do with staying true to the vision of the band. No matter what, through all the hardships and all the things that have come up, the roadblocks and the obstacles and the heavy stuff that’s gone on, that vision has stayed true, and I’ve remained completely dedicated to it.

You’ve been leading Iced Earth for close to three decades. Longer, if you include the years when the band was known as Purgatory. What has that experience been like for you?
It’s a lot of work, man. A tremendous amount. More than I think people realize. I mean, the guitar, it gets five percent of my time, you know? And people are shocked to hear that. I’m a songwriter, first and foremost. And when I’m in writing mode is when the guitar gets the most attention.

But there’s so much time spent dealing with all the other aspects of Iced Earth. Because after the record’s done and handed in, then I’m working with the artist very closely on the album cover. And then I’m working on layouts. And then I’m on the press tours. And then I’m running the day-to-day business with management. There’s just so much to do. But if it wasn’t that way I don’t think we’d have what we have.

Iced Earth has had more than two dozen musicians come through its ranks over the years. Do you see the band as a unit, or is it a project that is driven by your vision?
It’s always been my vision. Since the very beginning. I mean, the logo, I drew that in graphic arts class in high school. Back then it was Purgatory, but it was in the same font. I had to change the name in 1988 and I basically used what letters I could from Purgatory and then redesigned the others.

So I’ve always been chasing this vision in my head. And the biggest thing I would say about all the lineup changes, first off, I think everybody who’s been in the band has thought it was a real cool experience. But in the early years especially, it was such a brutal situation contractually that you would feel like there’s really no hope. I was literally locked into a spot where the only way out, my attorney said, was like “Look, you can just quit music altogether, because they own you.”

There was some pretty sneaky language and stuff, and I was a kid, you know? I signed a pretty bad deal. It’s one of those things. It was a hardcore learning experience. But the thing is, I don’t quit. I’m not a quitter, man. That’s never been an option. I mean, I was willing to work a full-time job in between every tour. If I had to quit a job to tour Europe and then come back and get another one, that’s what I’d do. Whatever it took.

How far into the band’s career were you still holding down a day job?
Up until the end of the album cycle for [1996’s] The Dark Saga. That’s when it became possible for me to make a meager living, but a living nonetheless. My last job was working on the Montu roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Tampa, which was actually kind of a cool job. And I also did a lot of different kinds of construction, and maintenance at apartment complexes where I would work on everything from toilets to air conditioners. That was my main thing for many years.

Iced Earth has a loyal fan base in the metal world, but at the same time you’ve never broken through to the mainstream in the manner of, say, a Metallica or a Pantera or a Slipknot. Has that been frustrating?
Back in the days when the financial situation was so tough, yeah, it was frustrating, big time. To the point where you just get en-fucking-raged sometimes. I remember those days, believe me. But I don’t know that that’s the way I feel now. Because I don’t know that Iced Earth could ever be a mainstream band. I just don’t think it’s even realistic. But I feel very blessed that we have such a loyal fan base. It’s amazing. We see it wherever we go. We played in Beijing and, dude, they were loyal Iced Earth fans.

There weren’t thousands of them. There were maybe 500 at each show. But it was awesome. So I’ve never been concerned with really getting the mainstream’s acceptance. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable in that. Because I know how this industry works. If it happened, and it happened without the band sacrificing any integrity, then fine. That’s cool. But that’s just not really a goal of mine. I want us to be successful on our own terms. And we are. Does that mean being a millionaire? No. But that’s my goal anyway. I do good. We all do good.

How would you characterize the Iced Earth sound?
I consider us a metal band. People use words like power, thrash, speed, whatever, man. People have to label it something. But we’re a metal band. That’s what we are. And within that you’re gonna hear all these different influences—old Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Maiden, Priest, all that stuff is in there. You listen to Framing Armageddon, the song “The Clouding,” you can certainly hear the Pink Floyd vibe. There’s even some prog elements on different records.

Because I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I don’t know how else to describe songwriting except to say it’s channeling energy. It’s a gift. I don’t really know how it happens. But if there’s energy coming and if you’re open to it and you’re channeling it the right way, you can really come up with some stuff that’s gonna move people. It’s a very cool thing.

Lyrically, you’ve always had an affinity for storytelling, and crafting concept albums.
Yeah, I do. But to me there’s a difference between a concept album and a theme album. To me, a concept album is one continuous story. Framing Armageddon, [2008’s] Crucible of Man, those are concept albums. So are [1991’s] Night of the Stormrider and The Dark Saga. But a theme album would be something like The Glorious Burden, which is based on a lot of different battles through history. There’s songs about the Napoleonic Wars. World War I. Attila the Hun. A lot of different things. And the big feature of that album is “Gettysburg,” the 32minute epic with the Prague Philharmonic.

What do you find so fascinating about military history?
I think there’s a few things to be gained from learning about these things. First of all, so that you can understand what’s coming. The better you can see your past, the more clearly you can understand your future. Because it seems like planet earth is like the insane asylum for the universe. [laughs] I don’t know what it is about people, but we just keep living the same shit over and over. It’s amazing. You go back and study the old empires, and we’re still doing the same things! Okay, so we have fucking iPhones now. But human behavior hasn’t changed that much. And I find it fascinating. It blows me away.

So history and battles, specifically the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, have always fascinated me, since I was a little kid. The thing about the Revolutionary War, the odds that were against those guys and what they were able to accomplish…it’s amazing. It’s inspiring to me to study that. And the Civil War, there’s that whole tragic brother-against-brother thing. If you think about it from a very human standpoint and you pull the politics out of it, you have in some cases families that were divided because of where they lived in a country, and they’re on opposing sides in a war. It’s heavy. I feel something there.

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