By Andrew Bansal
American heavy metal stalwarts Iced Earth unveiled a new chapter in their career with the recruiting of new singer Stu Block in 2011, followed by the release of their latest album ‘Dystopia’ and a subsequent world tour. During this tour, they played a show at the Kourion Theatre in Cyprus, and filmed it for their new ‘Live In Ancient Kourion’ DVD and Blu-Ray which was released recently via Century Media Records. It’s a fairly accurate representation of Iced Earth the band in its current incarnation. Now, they are ready to record the next album ‘Plagues Of Babylon’, and are performing festival dates this summer including Bangalore Open Air in India this coming Saturday. Shortly after the DVD release, I had a chance to catch up with guitarist and principal songwriter Jon Schaffer to discuss various aspects of the video and the world tour in detail, along with other topics like the new singer and future plans. The always outspoken, frank and honest Jon Schaffer does not hold back whatsoever in his responses to my questions. Enjoy the conversation below, check out a song from the DVD, and visit Iced Earth online using the links at the bottom.
Your new DVD ‘Live In Ancient Kourion’ came out recently. One of the most interesting things about that is, it was filmed in Cyprus. Was it something about the venue itself that appealed to you, or past good experiences that made you film it there?
Yeah, we have a great fan base there but it was really the theatre. It has a history to it and it’s just a cool, unique place to play. That was what made it so attractive. So when the promoter contacted me and sent me pictures of it saying, ‘This is where you should do your live DVD!’ I agreed to do it.
Yeah, usually when bands release DVDs it’s from places like Wacken, Download, Rock In Rio or Budokan. But this is pretty unique, so people buying it have something new to look at.
Yeah, we’ve done the festival thing as well but this one was a completely different type of filming and a different experience. The festivals you mentioned, they film every show so they have a crew there that just films all the bands and you basically just buy the rights to the tapes. You’re somewhat limited as to what you can do. We were limited as well in different ways while doing this one, but this is the first time we’ve ever filmed it with Iced Earth headlining the show and where we were really in control of it. And I think the next time we do a similar thing, we’re going to benefit from the lessons that we learned from this one. However, I’m happy with this, I think it was cool even though it was challenging in a lot of ways. We were on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, so some of the equipment was difficult and we were dealing with really extreme temperatures. There was a lot of concern with equipment failures and that kind of stuff but we got through it, man. I think it’s going to go down in Iced Earth history as one of the highlights of our career.
I was going to ask you about the challenges you faced, because I don’t think anybody has ever filmed a DVD there before. Bands hardly even play there, let alone film a show. But do you think it was worth the effort, still, to deal with the challenges and come up with this DVD?
Oh yeah, it was definitely worth the effort. There’s no doubt. And I think the reactions of the fans that I’ve seen so far are amazing, which is testament to that fact. You can’t really compare this to ‘Alive In Athens’. Of course people are going to do that, but Alive In Athens was in a club, it was two nights, it was recorded for an audio CD, not for a DVD. That was something Century Media did without my permission several years after the fact, to capitalize on the success that we had with The Glorious Burden record. It was basically a glorified bootleg. This Cyprus show was intended to be filmed. Of course you’d have to record the audio as well, but it was a different goal from the very onset. My point is, the reactions that we’re seeing are that most people think it’s equal to or better than Alive In Athens, and that’s a pretty cool thing.
So, obviously you were not happy with how Alive In Athens was dealt with, but are you satisfied with the release campaign and the packaging of Live In Ancient Kourion?
No, I’m not completely satisfied. I mean, I’m happy with the band’s performance, with what our crew was able to do and with the work of our editor. I think the label has made some stupid decisions, specially regarding the Blu-Ray. They were kind of complaining that the DVD market is dead, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s because most people are buying Blu-Ray discs today!’ I mean, I don’t buy too many DVDs anymore, but if I buy some kind of a medium like that, I’d buy Blu-Ray because it just looks better and technically sounds better. But the only way you can get the killer package with the Blu-Ray is to order it on CM Distro, through the label’s own distribution company. So they’re not releasing just a single Blu-Ray that’s available in shops. It’s all about maximizing profits for them and it’s not about trying to grow the band and get it out in as many stores as possible. It’s typical. But whatever. So those are the things I’m not really happy about. We look forward to the day when we don’t have to deal with record companies anymore, because then our destiny will be in our hands. I think we’re only a couple of studio albums away from that, and I think it’s going to be a great thing.
That’s an interesting insight! I was also going to ask you about the Blu-Ray thing. This is apparently the first ever live video released on Century Media on Blu-Ray. I’ve actually never watched any Blu-Ray myself, but in terms of metal concert videos, how do you rate the Blu-Ray experience?
Well, just in general you’ve got a much higher resolution. Unfortunately, we were supposed to be supplied 1080p HD cameras in Cyprus but they came up with 720p. So our Blu-Ray is a lower resolution than what we would have preferred. But there is a huge difference between Blu-Ray and DVD. If a concert is filmed in 1080p resolution and you have a Blu-Ray player and a TV that can handle it, you’re going to have an amazing picture compared to a normal DVD. It’s just a huge leap. But the 720p itself looks great compared to a DVD. So, it’s one of those things of technological advancement. They’ve always been able to find a way to make us buy more stuff (laughs). We buy the catalogs of all our favorite bands and stuff, but they make us buy more versions of it. But in terms of concerts, I haven’t seen too many videos in Blu-Ray either. I have the Metallica show, ‘Quebec Magnetic’ is what I think it’s called. It looks really good. I’m sure we’ll get more videos on this medium as it becomes more popular, but the reality is, a lot of physical product market is dying. So people are just getting stuff online. Whether they pay for it or not is another problem but you get HD downloads from iTunes and all that kind of stuff. There are a lot of different format options out there for people right now.
Whenever a video of your show is filmed, how do you judge it when it’s presented to you for the first time? Do you look at the editing, camera angles or the quality of your own performance?
Just all those things. Basically we had some problems with our camera crew in Cyprus, that’s why there are key shots that we don’t have, which I think is ridiculous. Some of our camera crew just didn’t listen to our director. He gave them strict instructions at the beginning of the show and they didn’t follow them. So there are certain shots where, say Luke is playing some cool bass part in the beginning of Dracula which is kind of like a bass solo. He should be featured on the video there but we got no footage of him. The camera crew was told to stay on the guy but they didn’t, so we missed some good shots that way. But again, that’s part of the learning process. And of course, you also judge your own performance as a band. I think the next time, which will probably be on the next world tour and we already have an area which we’re thinking about filming in, it’s going to be another big step forward because we’re going to know better what we’re doing.
As for the show itself, what are the things you did specially for the show that you wouldn’t have otherwise done if it was not being filmed?
I think the show itself was pretty good, if you talk about the band’s performance and the stage setup. I’m pretty satisfied with that. It’s mostly a representation of the Dystopia wold tour during which this show happened, but there were several songs we played in Kourion that weren’t played on the world tour. They were either exclusive to that show or we practiced them at a couple of festivals before the Kourion show. But there are definitely some songs on there that we didn’t play on the Dystopia world tour. With that said, it’s still a good representation of what that tour was like.
With your new singer Stu Block, when the Dystopia album came out in 2011, a lot of peope were impressed by him and started accepting him as the new singer. But do you think it all got more solidified with the tour? And the people who missed the tour, they can check out the DVD to hear and see what he’s like on stage as the Iced Earth frontman.
Yeah, the tour probably was the biggest part of that because we played a lot of shows and Stu just killed it every night. Out of the 140-something shows we did, he had just one night in Scotland when he was sick. He had gotten a little cold and he had a rough time on stage. That’s not at all bad considering the kind of hardcore touring we did. He’s a soldier, man. He can handle it every night and he performs every night. A lot of people saw that early on and were very impressed. Of course, this DVD is only going to help that and the next record is going to be really strong. We’re about seven songs into it now, it’s feeling great and Stu is going to shine on that well. So the fans have overwhelmingly accepted him. There are certain people that are stuck in the past, and that’s OK because they can keep listening to the old records, but Iced Earth is moving forward.
With him not being used to this kind of touring, specially with his previous band Into Eternity not really active as a touring band in recent years, were you even expecting him to do this well? Were you surprised to some extent?
I was surprised. Not only him, but Iced Earth as a band has never really done this kind of touring before. Of course, we’ve almost always headlined which is different from what Stu had with Into Eternity because they were always a support act. But we’d go out on tour for a month and inevitably the singer would have a problem at some point, whether it’s catching a cold or something. It’s hard to be on tour. When your body is your instrument, you’ve got to really look after it. We live in a tour bus and if the crew is living with you and if those guys are out experiencing the weather the whole time, they end up getting sick and the band gets sick as a result. So it’s kind of normal and that’s why I was pretty amazed that Stu escaped that for the majority of the tour. I was surprised by his endurance level, because having been in Into Eternity, in a situation where he’d only play for a half an hour at a time, or 40 minutes at the most, it’s a different thing going out and playing a long set. But like I said, he’s road warrior. He loves it, he lives for it, and he executes it very well.
As for your own guitar playing, when you’re on stage and being filmed, does it also bring out the best in you as compared to being in the studio?
Well I don’t know, I think anytime you are under pressure it should bring out the best in you. Being in studio is pressure as well because time is money. You’ve got to perform well and get your parts done so that you don’t fuck up the budget. So may be it’s a bit of a different kind of pressure. That recording is going to outlive you. That’s your legacy. So I guess in some ways it’s may be even more important than a live show, because a live show is here and gone. But I think the pressure of both things should always be what makes people do their best. People that are under pressure tend to perform their best.
Finally, with this Dystopia world tour pretty much done, are you going to work on the new album ‘Plagues Of Babylon?
We’re writing the new album now, and this summer we have a bunch of festivals in Europe booked so we’ll be tracking the new record in between the gigs that we’ll be playing. Our world tour is starting in January. We’ve already announced the European leg. So we’re not taking any time off, man. We’re recording and hitting the road again soon. It’s going to be great!