ICED EARTH - Exotic Locales Are The Rule: Cyprus, Uruguay, Gettysburg & Babylon
May 6, 2013, 2 years ago
By Mark Gromen
If you don’t know who Jon Schaffer is by now, you’re definitely not a metalhead. But as well known an entity as the ICED EARTH founder/guitarist is reported to be (even by someone like myself, having known him for more than twenty years), he’s not without a surprise or two up his sleeve. After years of rallying to America’s defense, yet also being an outspoken critic, he’s up and moved his family to Uruguay, where he’s busying himself with the follow-up to the widely applauded Dystopia. “I'm living down here now. I'm on the road all the time, but we've been down here for six months. We're going to try it out for a couple of years, see how we like it. We're renting a place here: my wife, my daughter and I. We've got a lot of good friends down here. We enjoy it. Enjoy the weather. We’re just experiencing it and we'll see if we end up back in the States. Who knows, maybe Germany.”
The reason for our chat is Live In Ancient Kourion, the first “real” live DVD from Iced Earth, filmed last year in a 6000 year old, open air amphitheater, in Cyrus. Never one to “settle,” fans know Schaffer is a stickler for details, none too happy with the Alive In Athens DVD, so the questioning began with whether he is happy with the finished product. “The thing people have to remember was that Alive In Athens was never intended to be a DVD. That was Century Media basically doing a bootleg. It was intended to be an audio recording only, so it's a completely different game, comparing the two products. As a DVD, Alive In Athens is crap. I know people like it, because it's a historic show, but that was a TV show called Viva, that I was hosting. That's why they were there. This is the first headlining show for Iced Earth that we filmed (specifically) for that purpose. We learned a lot in the process. There were a lot of challenges, with the location that we chose to shoot: an island in the Mediterranean didn't make getting all the gear we wanted easy. We were somewhat limited. We were told, in the contracts we signed, that they'd provide 1080 Hi Def cameras, but that's not what came. That's why the Blu-Ray we have is in 720, instead of 1080. Little things like that were what we were up against, but at the end of the day, we made it sound the best we could and look the best we could, given what we were dealing with on-site. It was a big learning process. The next one we film, we have a little bit of wisdom now, so it will beat it in certain ways. One thing I know for certain: that's a special place, to be able to do it there, but the audience sounds much better when you're indoors. In that situation, we basically only had microphones at front of house. There were a couple at the front of the stage, but there wasn't enough security for the guys to mic up the audience throughout the arena. Some people who were at the show complained that it didn't have the same feeling as being there. We didn't have audience mics. Little things like that, next time we'll do it indoors and I've already got a location in mind.”
You don’t just show up in a foreign country, more specifically, a national heritage site, and record a heavy metal concert. Must have been lots of legwork beforehand. Schaffer agrees, “The first time we played in Cyrus, it was December, 2011, at the end of the European leg of the Dystopia tour. We had an amazing show there and I told the promoter we were thinking about doing a DVD on this tour, because it was a new beginning and we'd like to document that. He said, 'Why not Cyprus?' I said, 'It's possible. There are a lot of places we're playing around the world that we'd like to check out.' Six or eight weeks later, he sent me pictures of the Kourion Theater, saying, 'This is where you need to do the DVD.' I immediately fell in love with the idea. It was probably February or March we got serious about it, choosing the date. Honestly, my manager was more involved with the day-to-day stuff.”
Returning to the same area of the world: Greece vs. Cyrus, for the purpose of a live recording, was there a feeling of déjà vu? Not for the guitarist, “Not really,” he replied. “It's pretty different. The theater itself is unbelievable. OK, there's Greek heritage, Turkish heritage in Cyrus, but it’s a sovereign nation. Being on the island, as opposed to a little club in Athens, it was a completely different feeling. You could compare the spirit of the audience, but there was no deja vu for me. Once the show starts, it feels like every other Iced Earth show. When the theater is empty, the night before, or after the show empties out, and you can see the ancient qualities of the place, you really think you've done something unique. I got a newspaper article three or four weeks after we played there, the department of antiquities said there'd never be another show like that. We've done something historical, because we're the only band that's going to play in that theater.” Lest you think the government was complaining about unruly behavior, or damage to the structure, guess again. “Actually, the crowd was very respectful. I just think they don't want to make it a habit. I would have been nervous, to get crazy, especially up in the stands. That was a really steep theater. They're on rocks that are cared by hand. It not even. It was very lumpy. Just walking downstairs, you have sort of an insecure feeling, so it's not a place where you want to jump around, or mosh.”
So basically, the venue was THE selling point, in terms of where to film. “Definitely, it was the theater that sold me. When I saw the pictures, I was hooked, right away. The Cypriot audience was amazing. The first time we were there, it was an indoor venue, a big place and we rose out of the floor on a hydraulic stage, like KISS. It was a really wild show! At this show, the people were more subdued and I do believe it was because people didn't feel as secure. It was very steep and there was a level of respect there too. We were playing in a very historical part of their country. It was a different vibe but still great.”
In terms of the setlist on display, longer than the rest of the Iced Earth tour, especially shorter, Euro festival dates, they didn’t want to replicate Alive In Athens, nor the triple concert Festivals Of The Wicked DVDs. “We just went by talking to the fans. It's getting more difficult. There are ten studio albums now. You're never going to please everyone. Alive In Athens was done in two nights. This was one night. We had one shot at it. We normally don't do a wimpy set. We normally play a couple hours anyway. The challenge was keeping the songs tight. We were over there, playing festivals and there were some songs we only did once. We were like, 'I hope we can pull this off tonight.' That was the biggest pressure. To me, the coolest part of the DVD is the Making Of. We have plans to film the next couple of tour cycles, the stage show is going to be different and it gives us chance to delve into the back catalog, do a lot of things we haven't done in many years. People want to hear Stu (Block) sing the early material. It makes no sense, the way the industry is, in this market, to go back in and re-record anything in the studio, but it does make sense to do it in a live setting. We've got new markets expanding all over the world, that we want to film in and to be able to do special stage shows, it's wide open.”
True, but tracks widely associated with former singer Matt Barlow, like ‘Travel In Stygian’ or ‘Vengeance Is Mine’ are absent form this performance. The guitarist confirms it was something of a conscious decision, but not at the expense of Barlow. “I don't see the point in putting out the songs that were on a DVD (Festivals Of The Wicked) just a year earlier. That's one of the reasons we tried to shake up the setlist as much as we could. At that point (with Barlow), the band was a hobby, doing a couple of festivals or two weeks of touring in North America, then eight months later, a couple of weeks in Europe. You can't rehearse like a proper band, because it's expensive to go into a pre-production rehearsal. So we stuck with familiar songs. That's why the three shows on the Festivals DVD basically have the same setlist. Now, performing, doing things like a proper band, you can have eight-to-ten pre-production rehearsal days before a massive world tour begins and still work in new material, as the tour moves along. That allows us to become tighter and extend the set, move different things in and out.”
To my ears, there are definitely moments (not full songs) when listening to the audio where I forget Barlow is no longer there, such is Block’s delivery. Schaffer, on the other hand doesn’t hear it, neither on record, nor onstage. “The past is the past and it's done. I've never been more proud and satisfied with the chemistry, the mission and the vibe within the band. I wouldn't trade it for anything. When Matt first joined the band he had a low, guttural voice and a high falsetto. In some ways, it was similar with Stu. The songwriting in Iced Earth is mostly in the mid-range. That's an area we pushed with Matt. Stu's got the ability to catch the Iced Earth atmosphere, but personally, I don't think he sounds like Matt and he doesn't try to. We're trying to push it further, into a slightly different direction on the new album. He's learning things about his voice that he's never heard before. The most fun times we've had in the studio is when I'm producing and pushing him. You can see the lights in his eyes. He hears it and gets excited by it. I do too. It's like discovering you have a new toy.”
New toys can be fun, but so are old favorites. As if reading minds, the mainman offers, unsolicited, “I get asked all the time about DEMONS & WIZARDS. As much as I'd like to do it, I can't take away from the momentum of Iced Earth right now. Hansi (Kursch, vocalist for BLIND GUARDIAN) and I know how successful Demons is and how successful a tour would be, but I can't take a year away. Between writing, recording and doing some touring, it would take at least that long. It's not really an option at this point. We're on the march!
Speaking of marching, all this work means Schaffer, an avid Civil War fan/re-enactor, will miss Gettysburg’s massive 150 year anniversary/re-creation, this summer. “I was invited to march with Virginia and join them, but... Yeah, it sucks! I was really hoping I could be part of that, but I've got to work.”
His loss is our gain. Can’t wait!
More on Iced Earth at this location.
(Editor's note: for news about Iced Earth's new album Plagues Of Babylon visit Bravewords here.)