WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2010 - Heavy metal musicians have always prided themselves on pushing the boundaries of their instruments.
Sarasota, Florida’s Atheist has shoved farther than most, their invention of technical death metal in the late 1980s revolutionizing the genre forever.
17 years after the completion of their swan-song “Elements” in 1993, the pioneers of crushing complexity have returned with this year’s “Jupiter.”
I e-mailed vocalist/guitarist Kelly Shaefer and got his thoughts on how it feels taking Atheist out of the 20th century and into the 21st.
It’s been almost two decades since the last Atheist release. What can you say about Atheist’s history for those unfamiliar with it?
Kelly Shaefer: Well, it’s vast, complex, tragic and persevering, much like our music. We went through our early years as a very misunderstood band. Only a handful of writers from those days were onto what we were creating.
As time went on after our breakup in 1993, our legacy just organically grew into this weird influence on a lot of young bands in Europe. The next thing you know, we are re-issuing our records in 2005 and hitting the stage for the first time in a decade and a half in 2006 for 60,000 people at Wacken Open air in Germany to a roaring response. That’s a big change from the last time me and Steve Flynn (the group’s drummer) played together for about 60 people.
It’s really quite bizarre how this has unfolded, and the great thing about it is that the fans are the ones who brought this music back, younger fans at that. To them this music is fresh and new and in some cases older than they are. It’s been very fun.
How has the heavy metal world changed in the period between Atheist’s hiatus and eventual reunion?
Shaefer: Much as the cell phone has changed, the music world has changed as well. When we last made music together there was no Internet, no mp3s, none of that stuff. Now the new technology creates diversity and exploration – it makes it possible to check things out on a whim, and if you make good music, people will find you on the Internet.
It’s as if our jokes are suddenly funny, whereas it was not funny at all in the days of “Unquestionable Presence” in 1991. It was tough to find crowds that could wrap themselves around the weirdness of our music. These days, everyone looks for experimental music, and I think that’s amazing.
How does it feel playing in Atheist again after so long?
Shaefer: It feels familiar and gratifying. We always believed in this band with all of our hearts. We always wondered why no one liked it back then, so to see it embraced now with open arms is much like seeing one of our children getting married or graduating from college.
It’s also a bit surreal because of the way people speak about these old records. Sometimes I see things people write and I think, “Where were these minds when we made this music?” I quickly realize that this kind of longevity is priceless and I wouldn’t change anything from our past and the hardships of working our way up.
I was sorry to see long-time bassist Tony Choy depart Atheist before this year’s release of “Jupiter.” Do you have any comments on his absence?
Shaefer: We have talked about his departure and everyone’s still great friends and brothers. I think there is a great chance I will get Steve and Tony together to make another record. The hidden aspect of this whole iceberg is that they are both incredible players and I know Tony wanted to do “Jupiter.” It was just the timing. He has always been a bit of a free roamer – as am I – playing lots of different kinds of music. I want everyone to know that we still have mad respect for each other and we hope to work together sometime in the near future. He may actually do some concert dates with us so it’s all cool.
I’ve always thought of Atheist as a philosophical band lyrically-speaking. What themes or ideas would you say inspired “Jupiter?”
Shaefer: Thank you for saying that, it matters to me that lyrically we have as much to say as we do musically
The lyrics have always been 50 percent of every composition for us. I covered a wider variety of things on “Jupiter” that I really never dove into before this. There are lyrics about personal battles (“Fictitious Glide”) to all out attacks on the world (“Faux King Christ,” “Fraudulent Cloth”). I encourage everyone to sit with the lyrics after you absorb the music as it’s easier to swallow that way.
Eliran Kantor’s artwork for the new album is simultaneously mesmerizing and grotesque. How was the idea for it created?
Shaefer: Grotesque? I think it’s beautifully violent and epic. I just can’t say enough about the cover and the job Eliran did. He really took my lyrics and created something that is ocean deep compared to the puddles of most cover art. It really makes the whole “album” experience that much better. It is my favorite cover by far that we have ever had, and I can’t wait to have a t-shirt of it made.
The two lions on the front represent the struggle between youthful religions such as Christianity and Islam as they fight for supremacy in the womb of the sun, the root of all folklore and early strains of organized thought. The molecules on the back of the album are actually the molecule strands for THC. You have to love that.
I’ve heard lots of metalheads old and new debating Jason Suecof’s production on “Jupiter,” mainly on account of how “lean” and “modern” it sounds. How do you feel about the album’s final sound?
Shaefer: It’s the craziest sort of purism I have witnessed as an artist. If we would have recorded it on a 16-track analog, people then would have said it sounded awful. I personally love the production – it’s crisp, clean and super hot.
Our music has always been full of little things that sometimes were buried beneath the burden of not being able to capture it correctly on tape. Those days are gone, and I think that is why “Jupiter” might be alarming for people accustomed to our older stuff. They suddenly thought they had our band all figured out and now the production has created even more to listen to. It might be a bit overwhelming at first.
How does “Jupiter” stack up against Atheist’s trilogy of albums from the late 1980s and early 1990s?
Shaefer: It’s an important step in our evolution as a band. It’s not a continuation of “Elements” as much as it is of “Unquestionable Presence.” We truly picked up where we left off, for better or worse. I think in five years when I look at this album in the batch of albums, it will be one of my favorites.
You’ve struggled with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in the past. Do you still fight against these conditions, and if so, how do they affect your guitar playing?
Shaefer: I do battle with them but it only affects my playing while standing up. I can sit for hours and play and it gives me very little grief. It developed as a result of playing this crazy music while singing and the angle that I was playing. It does not keep me from writing or teaching, it just makes it difficult to play live unless I’m sitting on a stool, which will never happen. I now have two great bookend guitar players who do a fantastic job (Jonathon Thompson and Chris Baker), a positive thing for our live performances. It allows me to connect in a different way to the audience and that’s something I really enjoy.
Following Atheist’s dissolution, you formed a more rock-oriented band named Neurotica and spent nearly a decade away from heavy metal. How do you reflect on those days now?
Shaefer: That was an incredible run – we did three records with the final being for Vince McMahon and the WWE’s label Smackdown Records. It was a different world for me – the money, the promotion and the touring are far different.
We got to work with some amazing producers and engineers – Brian Johnson from AC/DC produced our first album “Seed” and Kevin Caveman Shirley did the self-titled record we did in 2002 at the Hit Factory in NYC. We had a blast doing the Ozzfest tour with Rob Zombie and System of a Down that same year.
I learned how to sing properly experimenting with Neurotica. It made me a better performer and allowed me to find a different side of myself that was not allowed to show in the underground metal world as much.
I have also done an acoustic duet with a good friend and musical talent Julia Simms. I had a stoner rock band called Unheard (I love stoner rock) and a post-Neurotica band with some of the other members called Pyroclastic, plus another side-project called Big Machine.
I have always been a fan of many different kinds of music and I just enjoy playing. I don’t care who tells me I am not supposed to do something. I will paint what I choose as an artist.
You also tried out for the lead singer position in Velvet Revolver. Did you ever worry that metalheads would accuse you of “selling out?” Why or why not?
Shaefer: Initially I sent the Neurotica record to Slash (Velvet Revolver’s guitarist) and he called me three days later and said he and Duff McKagan (the group’s bassist) liked what they heard from my voice so they sent me three tunes to write for. I did just that and they called me back and brought me to Los Angeles to write and rehearse. They had been looking through 650 singers before getting to me. I hit it off well with Slash and we wrote some cool music together, but in the end Scott Weiland got the gig. It was amazing being able to cross to the other side and jam with what is really The Rolling Stones of our generation. I’ve got nothing but great things to say about all those guys.
I don’t worry about accusations of “selling out.” No one is going to tell me that if Slash calls them and asks them to sing on a tune, or if Brian Johnson from AC/DC asks you to sing some tunes he wrote, that they are not going to sing. I have no regrets – for a death metal guy from Sarasota, Florida, it was a crazy experience for me and I loved it. I enjoy trying to fit myself around situations outside my comfort zone. I highly recommend it to broaden your horizons musically.
What does the future hold for Atheist?
Shaefer: There are lots of great times and music ahead – this is Atheist 2.0 and if “Jupiter” was the “Piece of Time” of a new trilogy, then perhaps the next record is going to be ridiculous. We plan on touring and promoting “Jupiter” for now. We have a lot of places we have yet to go on tour, and we hope to get to those as well. We just want a great appreciation for what’s happening with Atheist and we want to enjoy every second of it.
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