I recently had an opportunity to interview Kelly Shaefer, founder, vocalist and guitarist for technical death metal pioneers Atheist, thanks to Relapse Records recent reissue of their entire catalogue.
Kelly was self-effacing and forthright, and answered my questions with characteristic candor, articulately and loquaciously.
We focused on the reissues, fatherhood, and, along with his outspoken views concerning pot, the current state of metal and the music industry, Kelly addressed the question of a possible Atheist reunion
Here is the interview, transcribed for the thinking metal fan
JME: Thanks for taking the time for this interview
Im going to focus on the Atheist reissues, but I want to commend you on your website and on the music you have on the site from your various side projects
certainly different than your work with Atheist
JME: What does the reissue of the Atheist catalogue signify for the future of thinking mans metal?
KS: These albums are an important piece of the puzzle, and its high time for the history of death metal to be written. It has lasted for 20 years already, and Atheist was an integral part of the birth of the Florida metal scene. We pushed boundaries, and broke ground by playing music that wasnt just fast but well executed. We tried to make it as off-the-wall as we could, while still remaining brutal. I think a lot of people are confused by the term jazz-metal
elevator music it wasnt. It was jazz-inspired, more than anything-we used jazz logic with heavy guitars, and that became our sound. It was about orchestration, bass lines interacting with the guitars and drums
there were certainly other bands at the same time that were not as interesting
they were simpler. We were huge Rush fans, and our drummer was a lot like a dentist
trying to fill every hole
JME: Much has been made of the comparisons between Atheist, Cynic and Watchtower
KS: Well, the timeline is important
we were a couple of years ahead of Cynic
we were on the Unquestionable Presence tour when I first saw them
as a matter of fact, Lee Harrison of Monstrosity took me to a club to see them and I was completely blown away
Paul and Sean and those guys used more jazz influences than we did
we wanted to keep it brutal and heavy, with the witchy vocals, whereas they were more into finesse
not quite as heavy as their first demos
we were really only similar to Watchtower in that we were both very technical
JME: What are your thoughts on the state of hard music today? Virtuosity versus image or a lifestyle?
KS: I cant say enough about the newer bands and where theyve taken it
Im not one of those guys that says ahh
we did it better
We did open doors for possibilities
planted seeds and watered them too! There are bands that dont care about the template
Dillinger Escape Plan springs to mind
they push boundaries
Ive explored so many different kinds of music since leaving Atheist-Im a fan of all kinds. Im not solitary about the soundtrack to my life. Back in the day, I wouldnt listen to anything but death metal, except for my early influences
Iron Maiden, Priest, stuff like that
I guess just to keep up with what was going on at the time. By the 2nd and 3rd records, we were listening to jazz and trying to use the knowledge to create the sound we heard
There are lots of great new bands out there
one of my favorite new drummers is Joey Jordenson of Slipknot
really combines showmanship with phenomenal talent
definitely would love to jam with that guy!
JME: Will you discuss your thoughts concerning musicians propagating their own beliefs or causes through their music?
KS: Oh boy
everyones entitled to have an opinion, certainly everyone likes to express them
it gets to be a little bit of an ignorance-fest when musicians get into politics though
Unless you can show both sides, why write a song thats biased one way or another? I wrote a song called Why Bother? about voting
I think it was when we had Dukakis and Bush running
what a choice! Thats as close as I ever got.
am, anti-religious, so I wrote a lot of lyrics about that with Atheist because it went along with everything we were about back then. Unfortunately, having a platform as a popular musician doesnt necessarily give you the right to try and sway peoples opinions
if you try to gather your fan base to your side of the fence it tends to take all of the fun out of the music
I smoked a lot of pot in my career
it was an important part of the writing process, a part of my personality
I dont want to have a political slogan on my rolling papers
Music can be a high for people who dont do drugs or explore any vices, so to speak, that allows them to explore a different part of their brain
so theres something dirty about mixing politics and entertainment
JME: How does your role as the breadwinner of a family, and your impending role as a first-time father affect your devotion to music? Once youve committed to a family life, what happens to the drive and the desire to succeed?
KS: Fuel for the tank! Becoming a father is like making the best record I can make
to make a child is the most technically challenging thing I could ever do
Im engulfed in the process, and Im approaching it like everything I do
Im reading as much as I can to gain as much knowledge as possible. Im looking forward to the execution of it
being a father and of being really good at it. Its the most important job anyone has on this planet. It inspires me to get out and work harder.
JME: And then there are the subsequent reissues
hope to not have to reissue the first one
Im sure shell get it right the first time!
JME: Id like to ask you about something that we briefly touched on already
in the liner notes to Elements you thanked marijuana and advocated support of NORML
has your stance changed over the years, and how do you reconcile your impending fatherhood with your views concerning the poor mans prozac?
KS: Its easy for people to back away from that issue when you put the words pot and parent in the same sentence
I dont see marijuana as a drug, but as a therapeutic substance, not unlike other plants invaluable to humanity. I think my views have intensified over the years and Ive become more knowledgeable. A lot of money could be saved (and made) through the legalization or at least the decriminalization of pot. The idea that a couple of joints in your cigarette pack, or a couple of plants in your house could lead to serious jail makes me furious. Jail has been proven not to be a deterrent, and the cost of it is one of the many frustrating aspects of government to me. It will probably never change in my lifetime. Im not an activist though
I just have strong opinions!
Its not fair that Phizer can advertise all kinds of drugs on TV, especially when kids are watching
I mean, come on
drugs for erectile dysfunction, drugs for restless leg syndrome
are you kidding? And the side effects of these drugs! Some would argue against government involvement, but make some money from it. In this day and age how much more can we be taxed!
Music and drugs have gone hand in hand for decades
think of all the great music that has come in an altered state of awareness
Led Zep, Hendrix, Joplin, the list goes on
As a father, I wont be afraid to educate my daughter
its all about knowledge
in every aspect of life-music, politics, running a business-knowledge. Im not going to hide things from her and then turn her loose without a clue when shes 18 to try and figure it out on her own
it happens too often out there.
JME: What are you reading these days?
KS: Mostly biographies. I like to watch people-I love reality TV
not the stupid parts of it as much as for the mouse in a maze aspect. I deal with a lot of people daily, and again, I want to be more knowledgeable about the different types of personalities out there
see what people are capable of and how quickly theyll lie and turn on you to protect themselves. Reality TV is an elementary classroom for watching peoples stupidity and to remind you how little you can trust people
JME: You must have seen a lot of that in the early days of the industry, particularly in such a small subgenre at the time
KS: Wish I knew then what I know now! All I wanted to do was get off my friends couch, get in a tour bus and play. Whatever it took we signed. We got raped on deals. Definitely glad to have these albums back to be able to put them out. Knowledge is power!!
JME: What are you listening to these days?
KS: PJ Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age
always loved stoner metal
Atomic Bitchwax, I loved Kyuss a long time ago. A couple of times a week I have to throw on some old Sabbath
Taproot is a cool new band. The new System of a Down is interesting..I only listened to it a couple of times though
I got the joke
I end up going back to old stuff-Tony Iommi, Priest-the solos were such an integral part of the song
I miss guitar solos
all the new music
theres not a lot of great guitar players around
JME: This goes back to my earlier question about virtuosity versus image...
KS: Right, right
My goal is to make music thatll last another 15 years
I wanna write a Dream On or Bohemian Rhapsody
that one song thats definitive of me
definitely hard to do in death metal!!
JME: Music seems to run in 20 year cycles. Were ready for the next big thing. What will it be?
KS: Theyll never make cars the way they used to
the Chevelles and Camaros
they dont make motors like that anymore
no matter how much we scream for it theyre gone. I dont know that well get that kind of virtuoso again, but hopefully someone innovative in a different way. Then itll take us 10 years to appreciate them too!
In this Pro-Tools era of recording, its hard to get anything organic. You dont know whether theyre performing it or not. Unquestionable Presence
the drummer was live and there were no triggers
editing was done with a razor blade! Those days are gone. Thats why I appreciate the Queens of the Stone Age
.its real not doctored!
JME: I went to see Steve Vai and Dream Theater recently-the virtuosos are still out there and playing
KS: No, youre right
there are still a small group of guys keeping it going. Id also like to see another Slash
I love that style too
the rock world has no heroes anymore
JME: What about an Atheist reunion?
KS: Well, Im working on getting a small tour together for Europe for next year
we never got to play these songs live with Steve Flynn
everyones excited about doing it-everyones on board-Tony Choy, Rand Burkey, me, Flynn
really looking forward to it!
JME: Any final thoughts?
for any fans who appreciate technical music, go check out these discs, and read the story and try to understand the roots of it
when we put it out, no-one got it
I think listeners are ready for this
check out the website too, www.officialatheist.com and www.kellyshaefer.com
Thanks very much for this opportunity to speak my mind!