It's an exciting time in the world of Iced Earth. First, beloved vocalist Matt Barlow rejoined the band late last year. Now, the power metallers are on the cusp of releasing Part 2 of their epic "Something Wicked" saga. Part 2, which will be called "The Crucible of Man," and will be released on September 9, details the attempted destruction of the human race by a summoned creature called Set Abominae (the band's longtime mascot of sorts.) More than just music, Iced Earth founder and songwriter Jon Schaffer has huge plans for the saga including comics, graphic novels, action figures, and maybe even a major motion picture. He gave me a full rundown of all the goings on.
The Gauntlet: What brought [vocalist] Matt Barlow back into the band late last year?
Jon Schaffer: It was a little trick of fate, you know? First and foremost, I’m very happy with the work that Tim [Owens, former vocalist] did in the studio. Those recordings that we did together are great, and will always be some of my favorite Iced Earth albums for sure. I love “The Glorious Burden,” I love “Framing Armageddon.” In the live situation it was a different thing. I was feeling like there were some issues live that had never really been issues in Iced Earth before. It took me awhile to kind of pinpoint what that was. After doing some heavy thinking and discussing some things with the fans I would say that it comes down to having “true believers” in the band rather than just people that are really talented musicians. Even the guys that were in the singer position before Matt were true believers. The stage vibe was always like “We’re here to take over the fucking world.” It was like all-for-one, one-for-all. It just didn’t feel that way with Tim. I think it was because deep down inside he was really more concerned with his solo career than being a part of Iced Earth. Tim and I had discussions and I told him I had some concerns about the way things were going, but I really didn’t expect anything to happen. I know that a split was coming, and it certainly would have come after “Crucible of Man” if the Matt situation hadn’t reared its head. I think it was a fate situation. I heard about Matt doing the side project thing that he did, which told me that he must be missing music. We had seen each other over the years, but we never discussed music. Unfortunately the few times that we saw each other were at funerals, because we’re family. (Matt is Jon’s brother-in-law.) Anyways, so when I got back from a tour in Europe I called him up and was like, “Hey man, are you missing it?” And he was like, “Yea, I am.” The first thing I said was that we should consider starting a new project. It didn’t enter my mind that he would be able to do anything and still be a cop. I didn’t think he would be interested in coming back to Iced Earth or doing it on that level. I said, “Maybe we should put something together, it’ll be a way for you to earn some money, and we’ll just have fun working together again.” After we discussed it, it became obvious that he was interested in Iced Earth, and he thought he could manage it with his schedule. About 48 hours after we spoke about it, the decision was made. I just felt really strong about it. I didn’t want Matt to leave the band in the first place. 9/11 had played a big role in our perspective change. I came very close to dissolving Iced Earth and joining the Navy to try to get into Special Forces. That was going through my head. I was fucking pissed after 9/11. I wanted revenge, man. I was at that age where I had to make a move or I was going to be too old to get in. It was actually some Navy SEAL buddies of mine that talked me out of joining. They said, “Jon, man, you’re in a position to do so much more for us and for the cause than joining. There’s plenty of us out there in the field. We need you to keep writing and inspiring us.” A lot of the troops are big Iced Earth fans. It motivates them. So that was the decision that I went with. Matt started questioning what his purpose is in life. He was wanting to slow down and start a family. He came to me and said, “I think I’m gonna step down.” I told him, “Dude, I think it’s a mistake. We’re finally out from underneath the Century Media contract. There’s a whole new world of opportunity opening up. We’re never gonna have to eat shit like that again and be treated like that.” Anyways, I talked him into staying. We gave it a shot. We tried recording “The Glorious Burden.” It was obvious to Jim [Morris, producer] and I that Matt was not himself, and that he was not engaged. It was quite frustrating for both us being the producers of the album to feel that Matt was not there. I got down to Florida to mix the record, and we started mixing “Gettysburg.” We’d mixed all the rest of the album and it didn’t go well. There was a lot of pacing around in the control room on my part, and when we started mixing “Gettysburg” I turned to Jim and said, “You know what man, stop. I can’t do this, I cannot put the album out this way. It’s just not right. Damn the consequences, I am not going to put out the best album I’ve ever written and have regrets about it.” That was the deal. I went home and told Matt, “Dude, it is better, lets go ahead and just split because we tried and it’s just not happening. The vibe that I’m looking for for this stuff isn’t there. It’s obvious that you weren’t engaged and into doing it, and I think it’s just going to be better for everybody if we go ahead and split.” That’s the way it went down. I got Tim to come in as a guest musician at first to come in and do the tracks. He did a brilliant job on it. Most people don’t know he was a guest musician, but on the way home from recording on the Iced Earth album, he found out that Judas Priest were reuniting with Rob [Halford, vocalist], which had been leaked around for a year and a half or so before that, that they were negotiating. Tim came into it and we didn’t do that much touring during these last few years. Part of it was that after “The Glorious Burden” I had some pretty serious back trouble. Then my daughter was born. Then it took me all this time to write the “Something Wicked” stuff. We went back to Europe this last fall to do a headline tour, and that’s when I could feel that things weren’t right on stage. I think I would’ve notice it even more during the American tour as well, but I was in so much pain that I was pretty disengaged. I wasn’t really able to pinpoint what it was that was feeling so wrong. I think it was just a chemistry thing, and a matter of how committed somebody is.
The Gauntlet: Do you feel like Tim never really wanted to leave Judas Priest?
Jon: Well… I’m sure a part of him would have loved for it to worked out and to have been a success. Obviously Tim has a pretty strong obsession with Judas Priest. By speaking with him and spending time with him you can tell that he’s beyond a fan, you know? But it didn’t work out. It was pretty much a disaster. He probably had some mixed emotions about that, but that’s something you’d have to ask him. I think more he was a little bit delusional about what his value was as a solo artist, and how much demand there would be for that. I think that his head was kind of in that. I don’t think our fanbase ever really felt that he was one of us. That he was really committed to Iced Earth and a true believer. He was up there for Tim and doing things for Tim. That translates. The thing about this is that you cannot fool people. Having talent is great, and it can get you part of the way, but what seals the deal is the passion and the honesty. When you really feel the stuff, the fans are going to feel it too. It’s one thing for me, I’m the guitar player, and, yea, I write all of our music, and I’m very involved in the vocal arrangements. But when you’re on stage and you’re performing, when you’re the guy that is actually holding the microphone, that’s a different relationship to the people. You’re personally involved because your instrument is your voice. You’d better be a true believer, or they are going to see right through it.
The Gauntlet: Are you going to be re-recording “Framing Armageddon” with Matt then?
Jon: Yes we are. It’s not because I’m unhappy with what Tim did. I love it, and it will always be available in its original version. This new version is just for the box set. If SPV packages it someday as a double-album, the whole saga, it’ll be this way. But it’s not going to be released on its own like a new version of “Framing Armageddon.” I love the album the way it stands. Because it’s my story, I want it to have continuity. I want the whole saga to have the overall vibe that it should have. The box set has been planned all along. It’s the reason that there is no deluxe version of “Framing Armageddon” or “Crucible of Man.” We are waiting to release the ultimate package. There will be a “making of the album” DVD. There will be behind-the-scenes stuff from when we were recording. There will probably be a few live tracks from a few of the festivals we played this summer, as well as the “Overture of the Wicked” EP, which is the old “Something Wicked” trilogy. We’ll have Matt re-sing that as well. Three CDs, one DVD, and a hardcover book with a lot of extra artwork, and a lot of details that aren’t in the regular editions.
The Gauntlet: How about a figure of Set Abominae?
Jon: Well, that would be killer. That kind of stuff will happen when I move the story into other mediums. To do something like that now would be very expensive. To make a mold so that you’d have a Todd McFarlane-quality action figure would be like a million dollar investment. That’s not something that we can get into.
The Gauntlet: What are the touring plans for “Crucible of Man”?
Jon: We did a ton of festivals over in Europe this summer. We’re touring North America in September and October. That’s the first leg. We might do the U.K. in November, then a co-headline tour with Saxon in spring 2009 in Europe.
The Gauntlet: There was a rumor that you’d be recording a live DVD on this tour…
Jon: Basically the DVD that is coming out is going to be from the festivals we did this summer. It’s going to be called the “Summer Slaughter” DVD (ed. Note: sound familiar anyone?) It’s going to be a celebration of Matt coming back. I’m not sure what show we’re going to choose as the main show. It’ll either be Metalcamp or the Rock Hard Festival. I am supposed to be getting the masters so I can listen and see which show had a better performance and vibe. It will be one of those two, because we had a 14-camera crew at each one. It’s not going to be the production Iced Earth DVD that I’ve been wanting to do forever. It’s a festival so it’s a different atmosphere anyway. We don’t have the pyro and the lights and our stage show necessarily. It’s still going to be good. It’s going to be a way better DVD than “Alive in Athens.” But it’s not going to be the be-all, end-all live DVD that I am really looking forward to doing. That is something that will probably happen over the course of the next year or so. We’ll be doing some more filming, and it’s very likely that we’ll be filming some of these shows in New York, LA, Chicago, some of the main markets here in the States. I definitely would like the rest of the world to see that metal is very much a viable force in the United States.
The Gauntlet: Why did you originally decide to write the “Something Wicked” saga? What inspired you?
Jon: It came from the image of Set. I had this specific image of my character in my head of what I wanted him to look like, and what he was going to be. That’s where it all started. The story itself really just hit me. The whole idea of me starting a comic book character came from the relationship that we had with Todd McFarlane [creator of Spawn] when we did “The Dark Saga.” I got to be really good friends with Al Simmons, who is the namesake for the Spawn character, and was Todd’s roommate in college. Al was saying, “Jon, we gotta do an Iced Earth comic book.” He was talking more about doing a comic book about the band. That’s when Set popped into my head. I wanted to come up with my own story that Iced Earth could write cool stuff based upon. Something that could grow beyond it. It’s kind of my twisted take on my own worldview and my feelings for humanity and religion.
The Gauntlet: “The Crucible of Man” picks up right where Set is born.
Can you give some spoilers, do the humans get wiped out?
Jon: It doesn’t end. The song “Come What May,” which ends the album brings us up to the modern day. If humanity has a chance at all to survive being completely annihilated, it lies within each one of us to truly begin to evolve as a species.
The Gauntlet: To sort of come together in unity?
Jon: Sort of, but not quite so kumbayaa. Humanity has been the same exactly since we’ve been here. The only thing that has happened are technological advances. We’ve gone from living in caves to driving cars and having beautiful homes and computers and manned flights in space. But we’re still the same fucking idiots that we’ve always been when it comes down to the nature of our being. The key to survival for humanity in the “Something Wicked” universe is honesty. If humans would ever truly embrace honesty then they would have a shot at the nature of humankind actually evolving. Then they would reach a sublime level of what the Setians are. It’s that kind of thing that will probably never happen in our lifetime.
The Gauntlet: So it’s kind of a “make what you want of it” ending?
Jon: There is an ending, but it’s not exposed by Iced Earth. The “Something Wicked” saga goes way beyond Iced Earth. It’s gonna blossom into other mediums. From comic books to graphic novels to…
The Gauntlet: Movies?
Jon: That is in the plans, yes. It’ll happen someday. We’re going to go step-by-step and try to grow it organically starting with the Iced Earth fanbase, up through comic book fans, and try to move that way. So many stories have become movies from comics and graphic novels, you know?
The Gauntlet: This is obviously some very dark subject matter, did you set out to make “The Crucible of Man” one of your darkest and heaviest releases?
Jon: Yea, but also still very melodic and epic. That was the whole plan. I wrote this and “Framing Armageddon” at the same time, and it was all recorded at the same time. The only thing we had to do in this calendar year was finish writing lyrics and vocal melodies. The themes of the songs were finished. I knew where about 75% of the songs were going to be going lyrically and vocally and everything. I just had to finish it up. It was planned to be the most epic, darkest, biggest, grandest thing I’ve ever written.
The Gauntlet: Do you feel that it is your defining work as a musician?
Jon: I mean… so far, yea. I love “The Glorious Burden” too big time. I love “Gettysburg.” I think that it’s one of the greatest pieces of music that I’ve ever written and will be one of the greatest of my career. There’s a lot of things I love from the past, but I would say that this is certainly the pinnacle in some ways.
The Gauntlet: “The Crucible of Man” comes out September 9, can we have a tentative release date for the box set?
Jon: Probably Christmas 2009. That’s what I think is realistic. What’s going to be cool about this, is that it’s going to give me the chance to address some of the low-end issues that I had with “Framing Armageddon.” I just didn’t think that it was as punchy or as heavy in the bottom end as it could have been. I was being a little bit conservative because I didn’t want the speaker systems of people to woof out if they were cranking it really loud. I think I was over-controlling the bottom end. I think we found the happy medium with “Crucible.”
The Gauntlet: Do you have a favorite album of 2008?
Jon: I’d say probably Airbourne’s “Runnin’ Wild.” Although that may have come out in 2007. (Ed. Note: He is correct.) That’s my favorite new band, though. The energy that those kids have is fucking amazing. They’re so honest and real and raw. To see young kids playing AC/DC type rock n’ roll and doing it with as much passion as those guys do. They’re going to go places.
The Gauntlet: Alright man, thanks for the interview.