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

(Image credit: Jonas Persson)

“I just want to give you a head’s up, dude. I’m deep in the country here in Germany, and we’re having cellphone issues, big-time,” says Iced Earth leader Jon Schaffer by way of introduction when he gets on the phone with Guitar World. “Things look good at the moment, but we’ll see what happens, because we’re way out in the boonies.”

The boonies, to be exact, is the town of Ballenstedt, roughly two-and-a-half hours outside of Berlin, where Iced Earth are gearing up for their set at the Rockharz Open Air festival alongside acts like Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy and Death Angel.

It’s another stop on a barnstorming European trek for the veteran metal band, who recently released their 12th studio album, Incorruptible, and are, at almost 30 years into their career, as busy as ever. Indeed, Schaffer says that this is already his fourth trip across the Atlantic just this summer. “So it’s been tiring, but it’s been great.”

It’s also the only way the 49-year-old Schaffer knows how to work. Since conceiving Iced Earth—then called Purgatory—as a teenager in Tampa, Florida, Schaffer has been the steady hand at the helm of this particular metal ship, navigating the band through changing trends, innumerable lineup shifts (more than two dozen musicians have passed through their ranks) and any number of trials and tribulations, from bad contracts to tough financial times to severe personal injury.

To that last point, Schaffer recently underwent a second cervical fusion to repair a neck injury that threatened to derail his career. “It got to the point where it was really affecting my picking hand,” he says. “My brain was sending the signals but my hand just wouldn’t respond. So it was pretty scary.”

All along, however, Schaffer never stopped Iced Earth (even though, as he recalls, one doctor told him, “It’s very risky being out on the road and doing what you’re doing. One wrong move and you’ll be paralyzed.”).

And today, the band is recognized as a longstanding pillar in the metal world, in possession of a singular sound that combines the grandiosity and magnificence of European power metal with the unabashed aggression and white-knuckle thrust of American thrash. This is paired with a likewise distinct conceptual approach, which stretches from the instantly recognizable iconography of their album covers and associated artwork, to the deep and diverse subject matter Schaffer explores on record.

To that end, the majority of Iced Earth’s efforts have been concept albums, either in full or in part, that are centered around specific themes. One, 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, introduced a fictional story that explored the rise and downfall of humanity and spawned two later “sequels,” 2007’s Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1 and 2008’s The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2.

Another, 2004’s The Glorious Burden (one of two Iced Earth albums to feature former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens on lead vocals), was a double CD effort devoted to intricately detailed retellings of significant moments in military history, from World War I to the Battle of Gettysburg to the September 11 attacks.

In contrast, the new Incorruptible does not stick to one specific theme or concept. But it is similar to past Iced Earth albums in that it is fueled, first and foremost, by Schaffer’s dynamic songwriting and rampaging, meat-and-potatoes riffing. From the vintage power-metal vibe of opener “Great Heathen Army” to the full-throttle gallop of “Seven-Headed Whore,” the dark melodicism of “The Veil” to the epic Civil War–inspired closer, “Clear the Way (December 13, 1862),” Incorruptible finds Schaffer and his band—rounded out by vocalist Stu Block, bassist Luke Appleton, drummer Brent Smedley and recent lead guitar addition Jake Dreyer, a 25-year-old shredder who also played with White Wizzard and Witherfall—firing on all cylinders.

As for what keeps Schaffer going after these years?

“Failure was never an option,” he says bluntly. “I just figured this was a commitment ’til death. Whenever that is!”

In the following interview, Schaffer speaks in detail on his “commitment ’til death,” going deep on the unique history of Iced Earth, from 1990’s self-titled debut all the way up to Incorruptible.

Incorruptible is Iced Earth’s 12th studio album. How did you approach this one?
In general, it’s always the same. It’s really just about trying to be open and connecting with whatever creative energy is going on in any given album cycle. If anything, I guess the biggest contrived decision for this one was that we weren’t going to do a theme record or a concept record. It was just going to be a collection of songs.

When you’re not writing to a specific topic, do the lyrics tend to skew toward more personal subject matter?
Well, I actually put the personal stuff in even within the concepts and the themes. I’ll always find a way to put a message in there. Because the songs, whether it’s something like [2001’s] Horror Show or The Glorious Burden, where they’re about horror movies or specific battles throughout history, there’s still a lot of personal stuff in the lyrical content. And on this one, too, there’s definitely a lot of personal things, though in some ways it probably was a little more liberating to not be working under the confines of a specific concept or theme.

Because if I really think about the Iced Earth catalog, I don’t think that we’ve had an album that’s just been a collection of songs since the first album. Even if it’s like an album like Something Wicked This Way Comes, there’s a lot of different things on that record, but then you have the trilogy of songs [outlining the Something Wicked story] on the end. But on this one, none of the songs are related.

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.

As far as your guitar history, who are the guys that influenced you?
That’s a funny thing, man—my heroes are really bass players. Okay, if we go back to the early, early days, it was definitely Ace Frehley. He was the reason I wanted to play guitar. I was a huge Kiss fan—I bought Alive! the day it came out.

So the initial idea of wanting to do this was definitely from Kiss. But when I started to actually fumble my way around on a fretboard, all of my energy went into making up my own riffs. I never was interested in playing cover tunes. Ever.

So when it came to writing riffs, I really feel my biggest influences were Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Roger Waters. These guys are really up there. And you know, Tony Iommi, of course—he’s the riff master and a huge influence. But I was never really into playing like somebody else. Or even trying to. It really was more about these guys who were awesome songwriters and who I felt were visionary dudes.

And those guys, for me, were bassists. Probably if you broke it down the guy who I rip off the most is Steve Harris. I feel like on a subconscious level, those gallops, and the shit he does with his fingers on a bass, I’m doing that with a pick on a guitar.

Do you think the fact that you approach guitar from more of a bass player’s perspective is partly the reason you’re more focused on playing rhythm rather than lead?
It is. I played a couple solos on the old Iced Earth records, in the very beginning, but I didn’t really care about it very much. I am more of a rhythm guy. There are so many guys out there that play the lead guitar stuff, and honestly dude, I just don’t have the time and haven’t had the time for many years to really get great at that, because I’m doing so many other things that make Iced Earth a force. I felt it deep down in my soul then I would do it. But I just don’t. I do a lot of lead guitar melodies on our records, but I just don’t do solos. I don’t really feel it. I’m more into the songcraft, man.

What gear did you use on Incorruptible?
There were two main guitars. The first was my Les Paul ’59 reissue that I’ve been playing a long time, probably since 2006 or so. It’s a tobacco burst I call Smokin’ Joe. It’s really killer. It never goes on tour though because I don’t want it to get trashed. And the other was my “Don’t Tread on Me” Gibson Explorer, which is from 2008 or 2009. I did rhythm stacks of each of those. For the clean parts, I have a couple Strats that I like to use, and also a Reverend Horton Heat Gretsch and a couple different Telecasters. But for the typical Iced Earth rhythm sound, it’s a Les Paul or a combination of a Les Paul and an Explorer.

Amp-wise, for this album cycle I pulled out my Larry Dino amp, which is the one I used on Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s made by a guy named Larry Grohmann, in Germany. He only builds 10 to 12 amps a year, and they’re all handmade. They’re expensive but they’re worth it. Then I use one Marshall cab loaded with 25-watt Celestions and another loaded with 75-watt Celestions. I like the pick attack you get from the 25 watts but I like that low-end thump that comes from the 75s. And I use four mics on each cab. So it’s a process. Then for the stage, Larry built me a Jon Schaffer signature preamp, so I can use the power amp section of a Marshall DSL 2000 and run my preamp through it and get it pretty close to the sound of the Dino head. And I don’t use any effects. Live, I usually just have a chorus and delay for the clean parts. But that’s it.

Incorruptible is your last album for your current label, Century Media. You’ve said that after this you’ll go the independent route. Do you feel like Iced Earth is on the cusp of a new beginning?
Well, I’m not saying we’re not gonna work with record companies. But a lot of things are being discussed right now. We have a lot of options. But the one thing that is for sure is that, for us, there’s never going to be anything that represents the old model of the business again. Those days are absolutely done. Is it like starting over? Not really. Because I have a wealth of knowledge. When you’re a kid that splits from home at 16 years old and starts a heavy metal band, and you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into, it can be a pretty ugly wake-up call. So I never have to go through that again. I guess my initiation has been done. But it’ll be new in the sense that we’re gonna have more responsibility on our shoulders.

When you were a high-school kid sketching out the Purgatory logo could you have ever imagined the band you were creating would last this long?
I just…I never really thought about it man. I think it’s just been such a commitment to the overall thing. I don’t have a desire to do anything else, you know? It just is. I’m married to it.

So Iced Earth will continue on for as long as you can do it.
It’s gonna be as long as I feel like I have something to say as a songwriter. Because the records are really a testament to who we are. They’re gonna outlive us by centuries, I hope, and people will enjoy the music for many lifetimes after I’m gone. So if I felt like I was really just going through the motions, with no inspiration behind it and no real spirit, then I would just stop. Because I don’t want to tarnish the name I’ve dedicated my life to. That’s not the way I roll. I would rather just say, “Okay, it’s time.” But I don’t think that time is gonna happen any time soon. I think there’s plenty of inspiration to come.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.