In the world of technical death metal/thrash no one comes closer to the real thing. For over 20 years they have been mashing out their own brand of jazzy, technical flavored brutality. Through various member changes and lineups they remain in tact. This meeting is im sure the most in depth atheist conversation anywhere. Enjoy and head over to a real record shop and pick this up. Dont complain about it being $15 either. You never buy CD's
The new Atheist record is coming out in a month. What’s going through your head today with regards to the return of Atheist?
It’s excitement and anticipation. It’s been a long time coming. It’s always a little uneasy when you’re put up on a sort of judgement block. We’ve never been the type of band to worry about what people think; we write the music we want. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hope that people will enjoy the record. We want people to like the record. We hope that people will feel the way we feel about it: that this isn’t just a band coming back for the wrong reasons. This is unfinished business for Atheist and a continuation of what we left 20 years ago with Elements. It’s rewarding and anticipatory but at the same time; it’s a vulnerable time for us. We came into this album not with an untouchable reputation, but with a reputation of influence for our three records that really couldn’t be taken away from us. But now we open ourselves up for the possibility of failure.
People want to take shots at a band that’s been away for 20 years. It’s easy for someone to say “Oh, they should’ve left the legacy alone. They should’ve left those three albums alone.” I couldn’t disagree more; hopefully when people hear the record, they will [too]. Once we heard the music that we were writing, we felt like we had to do another record. So there’s anticipation that people will feel the way we feel about it, and that’s excitement. It’s a new branch on the tree of technical metal. The way we did the record is very, very different than any other technical metal record. I hope people will feel the same way.
You touched on a few important points there. For one, though you’ve done other projects since Elements in 1993, Jupiter is the first post-internet Atheist record. For the artist, is there a different kind of heat in this age of anonymous, non-constructive opinions?
Oh, absolutely. There are great things and bad things about the internet. One thing is that people won’t form their own opinions. They tend to be influenced by message boards, blogs, and everyone else’s opinions. It’s so easy for people to put their opinions out there from behind a computer. All these predictions! At the end of the day, it’s frustrating for the artist.
But we used to trade cassettes back in the ‘90s, hope for reviews in photo-copied magazines — fanzines, we called them — and these days we can shift our music around the world in a matter of minutes. So hanging on to it and not playing it for anybody is frustrating [laughs]. Ideally, I’d love to be able to post a song on MySpace; there would be no speculation. It would just be bam! there it is. That’s song one and that’s what you can expect from this album. It’s like we have a really great secret and we can’t tell anybody. [laughs]
So we count on guys like you to get the word out that have no fear, Atheist is alive and well. Or … you know. Fortunately, we haven’t had a bad review yet. It’s been really well-received by everybody. I’m sure that somebody will have something bad to say. But for the most part, it’s been positive. The internet is a great tool for getting your music out there, but it’s so good of a tool that these fives weeks before it comes out … [sighs] it’s fuckin’ frustrating. [laughs]
We’re very proud of this record and we can’t wait for it to get out so the music can do the talking.
You mention that Atheist enjoys some renown for influence and groundbreaking. Does that give you extra confidence in the beginning stages of the album’s creation?
Does it give us more confidence? No, actually. Not for me. To me, it’s a mountain to climb in order to put another mountain behind it. If anything, it’s a tall order to fill, following that record. [laughs] To the average fan, Elements is the final Atheist record — and we’re proud of that record; it’s very different than the albums we’ve put out including Jupiter — but in my opinion, I started this band with my best friend, [drummer] Steve Flynn. And when he went to college and quit the band [following Unquestionable Presence], I just felt like we had so much more to say, musically, and we didn’t get to say it. So I knew in my mind that we’d be able to top Unquestionable Presence.
But there’s always that feeling inside that people won’t see it that way. That’s an uneasy feeling [to have] when you’re writing a record for the first time in 20 years. There are all these other things that people tend to focus on, such as the amount of time it’s been. Almost every review I’ve read so far, people always preface it with “Well, it’s been 17 years. One would think that a band loses its touch and its footing when it’s been that long between records.” I wish that all that preface was gone and people could just review the record. That might lead people to think “Okay, I shouldn’t think too much of this because these guys are old.” And as soon as people hear this record … Jupiter doesn’t sound like an “old guy” record. [laughs] If anything, it sounds younger and more vibrant than ever, including the production. It’s very 2015, as opposed to 1990.
We’re used to people being [sighs] skeptical about our music; people always get confused by it. [In] all of the reviews we’ve ever received for past records, people were confused. It took 15 years for people to understand what we’re about musically. When you’re breaking new ground is never an easy thing for people to grasp when they first listen to it. I’m from the school of, y’know, if I hear something the first time and don’t understand it and don’t like it, that makes me want to listen to it a little more. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand it that I don’t like it. Nobody wants to listen to a record one time and get it all. “Okay, there it was! Now I’m going to move onto something else.” That’s never going to happen with an Atheist record, for better or for worse.
Coming into it, I felt confidence in us, but I didn’t feel confident in the listening public. Even with that said, it’s a much smarter musical audience now. [They’re] much more demanding of their music and their metal. That I love! All the ingredients are in place for this to be a different experience than it has been for us in the past. I’m hoping that all the smart metal people out there will stand up and explain this to the simpletons of the world who don’t understand what we’re trying to do: trying to break new ground. Anybody can go back and rehash what’s been done, and I know there will be some people who’ll say “[Jupiter] is more of the same from this band.” But more of the same from Atheist is far different than what’s going around us on our planet. So there’s a confidence, but also a vulnerability there.
And in the age that everyone is able to discuss a record so much before it comes out, it gets a little uneasy. You just want to jam it into their cd player in the car and fuckin’ crank it up!
That’s how we used to do it. Things are much different from 1991.
How old are you?
Oh. So you’re a young ‘un.
Yeah, I was a freshman in high school when Unquestionable Presence came out. That was awesome.
The world is different now, but listening to Jupiter, I see that it is still a very fertile source for good Kelly Shaefer lyric writing.
[laughs] Thanks, man.
Was it a challenge to resume the tone of previous Atheist records? Was that something that you considered?
I probably should’ve considered it, but I didn’t. This sounds incredibly simple and shallow, but my process of writing lyrics is this: I will roll up a joint, smoke it, and put pen to paper. Generally, the song is there 45 minutes later. I never change it. Once it’s on paper, it’s there, and I move on to the next song. And I wrote four of the songs’ lyrics four days before we recorded them. This was the first record where I didn’t write the lyrics, practice them with the band, get used to them, and change my inflections and all that; this [time, it] was spontaneous combustion on tape.
Obviously, there are some things angering me that were going to come out [and] that would come out in any conversation you’d have with me if we were hanging out smokin’ pot. Over the course of a couple days, you’re going to hear me bitch about religion. It fuckin’ infuriates me and it affects every aspect of our daily life still in the year 2010. It’s disgusting and I can’t say enough about it. So [the ideas in] “Fraudulent Cloth” had to come out; it’s something I’ve been arguing about for the last few years: The pope is walking around a free man when he’s a facilitator for pedophiles. Any other job you have, no matter what it was … if the president of the United States was [party to] child molestation, he would be in jail. He’d be exposed, ridiculed, and forever ruined. But for some reason, people are so scared of god and so scared of what’s going to happen when they die that they give this man a free pass. Essentially, what he’s done is allow little children to be sexually molested by people who work for his corporation.
So it was very easy for me to write that song; it was very hard to limit it to just one song [laughs]. I could go on and on for days about it. I will debate anybody, including the pope, about it. I’m not just randomly throwing out upside-down crosses to defy religion.
Especially in metal, religion is a well-visited topic. But this is me saying that I think the pope, the almighty leader of the Catholic church, should be arrested and put in jail for being what he actually is: a criminal. And that’s [for] only the offenses we know about; if somebody were to look into the finances of the Catholic church, they would be disgusted. So “Fraudulent Cloth” is a very important song to me.
“Live and Live Again” is another topic that’s part of my daily regimen. The theory of evolution, to me, makes perfect sense. Evolution is evident in front of our eyes all the time, yet most scholars of religion ignore it like it’s the Santa Claus story. I don’t understand what’s so hard for them to understand; you can see it with your own eyes. You can see it in aging patterns of animals and humans; you can see it in the growth patters in nature; the way animals and plants adapt. That’s evolution. It has nothing to do with god and nothing to do with anything other than the Earth. Like the lyrics say, “From grass to plant to tree/From caterpillar to wings.” When you watch a caterpillar turn into a moth or butterfly, that is evolution. There’s no god involved in that. I’ll hang my hat on that any day, as opposed to a train of thought agreed on by thousands of people. I’d rather stand alone on my side of the fence and say, “I think aaaall of you people are wrong.” I feel confident in my opinions about why we’re here and where we’re going when we die. I’ve never been swayed by organized thought. That’s what religion is.
It’s like when you have an argument with somebody, and you reach out to your friends to get their acceptance. You explain what happened, saying “I can’t believe he did that! Can you believe that?” But if your friends disagreed and said, “Nah, I think I agree with him. You’re wrong, he’s right,” you’d start to second-guess yourself. That’s just human nature. “Huh. Maybe I’m wrong.” For me, it’s the exact opposite. I don’t care if 100,000 people are telling me I’m wrong. If I believe I’m right, then I believe in myself. That’s god enough for me. I put my own two feet on the ground everyday and I decide my situation. If I decide to wrap it up, walk out into traffic, and move on to another life, then that’s what I want to do. There’s no god involved in that decision; that is me. God is love, I think. You can use the word that way, but god as portrayed in the bible is ridiculous. So, “Live and Live Again” touches on the [aspects] of evolution which are painfully obvious to anybody with any intelligence. As opposed to religion, which is this really well-thought out story that’s been skewed and manipulated over the course of hundreds of years. That’s the short answer on that one [laughs].
I’m sorry, man! [laughs] I’ve never been guilty of being short of words.
I feel like I’m not holding up my side of the conversation. [laughs]
You ask questions that create long answers. [laughs] But that means you’re asking the right questions.
At this point, it’s a matter of record that the instrumentation of Atheist is amazing, right? Adding a confrontational personality throughout the lyrics serves to elevate Atheist to an even higher plane. It’s like chocolate on ice cream. Or fresh raspberries in cereal. Better!
[laughs] You know, there was a question poised to me 20 years ago: “How is this music going to survive?” And my answer was always that people need to learn how to play their instruments. That’s probably an easy statement to make, but it was something I felt really strongly about. In order for extreme metal to make it as a valid genre of music that would have classic qualities to it 20 years later, it’d have to up the level of musicianship. And that’s exactly what happened. And 20 years ago, I didn’t think we’d make it here and people would still be talking about this music now.
You can see that in the early career of Chuck Schuldiner [of Death] — very basic, very simple, with more of a shock factor than instrumentalism. As the story is told, Death gets a lot of credit for being one of the bands that broke into technical metal. Purists and people who were there back in the day know that that’s not necessarily true. I give him all the credit in the world; Chuck is the godfather of Death Metal, without a doubt. So in order for the genre to survive this far, if anybody needed to turn and introduce more musicianship into their band, it was Death. They had so much influence on all the young bands coming up. So by Chuck recognizing that musicianship would be key, it became easier for fans to accept bands like Atheist. I love Chuck for that. I love the fact that he finally got it. But if you look back at the old magazines, he was not a fan of Atheist at all. We had many, many verbal confrontations at Morrisound Studios and through magazines. His argument was always that jazz has no place in metal. “Those guys [in Atheist] don’t even listen to metal,” he used to say.
Really? Is that true?
Oh my god, yeah! He says all that then gets Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert [both of Cynic] in his band. So his opinion changed. That’s okay. I don’t chain him to that in any way. He was smart enough to recognize it. He never admitted that he was wrong, but the music admitted he was wrong, from Human on. He knew to go get the best musicians. That was most important — not the guy with the most evil hair, or the biggest upside cross, or the guy who watches the most horror movies. He fucking got Gene Hoglan, Paul Masvidal, Steve DiGiorgio, Sean Reinert … all these guys who could play their asses off. So I tip my hat to him for that.
But when we started doing this, I can’t tell you how bastardized we were and how hard it was for us to make people understand. We’d have to explain, “I know you’re confused because you only heard this song one time, but if you listen to it again, you’ll understand it.” It was a different era. If people had heard that it was confusing music back then … They really wanted the most evil sound. That’s what people were concerned with at that time. Fast forward 20 years, musicianship is so important and there are hundreds of technical metal bands.
And I see that term used so loosely about bands that may not deserve it, including some classics that don’t deserve the title. I have a lot of [pauses] feelings about it. I’d never claim that Atheist is a black metal band because black metal is popular. We’re clearly not a black metal band and black metal bands should stay true to what they do. If a band came along today claiming to be the founders of black metal, I have one word for them: fuckin’ Venom. Venom was doing it before anybody. Venom doesn’t get a lot of credit for being the innovators of black metal, but they are. They fuckin’ did it before anybody did it — before black metal was even a term. The same can be said about Atheist. When we put out Piece of Time, there was no one. There was no Cynic, no Death, no Pestilence. We really stuck our neck out. We didn’t try to; that’s just the way it happened.
In retrospect, it’s fair to say that we deserve credit for having a hand in the opening of a new genre of music that is now thriving. I love the fact that bands like Obscura, Spiral Architect, and Stargazer are really painting with wonderful sounds. That’s all we ever wanted. That’s all I wanted as a fan of music: to hear bands push the boundaries of music, instruments, and lyrics. Lyrics have not necessarily evolved in the way that I’d hoped — yet. Some bands are better than others, but bands tend to use big words and try to be so clever that it comes off as pretentious. It’s not about pulling out your thesaurus and trying to confuse people with words they’ve never heard. I don’t want to do that. I want them to understand what I’m saying, but I want to say it in a clever way. So, my approach to writing sort of intellectual, topical lyrics is to say it in a clever way that leaves room for interpretation and doesn’t confuse the shit out of people with a bunch of words that no one would ever use in their daily conversation. [laughs]
I’ve always looked up to Neil Peart and the way he wrote. He was probably one of my main influences. And even, oddly enough, in early Metallica, James Hetfield was very clever with songs like “Creeping Death,” he was writing about things, about certain stories, but he wasn’t losing me with an overly-intellectual approach. I could understand what he was talking about. “Slaves/Hebrews born to serve to the pharaoh” — I get that. It wasn’t over the top. 50% of a composition is lyrics, so why should they just be discarded? It’s important. There are not enough people like yourself who actually pay attention to the lyrics.
You know what else sets Atheist apart? The quality of your voice. You’re in the same category as Obituary’s John Tardy for your very singular voice that conveys the horror in the lyrics.
After I left Atheist in 1993, I formed Neurotica. On Neurotica albums, you’ll hear legitimate vocals, harmonies, clean vocals, and sweet vocals. By the way, I never ever planned on being a singer; I was always a guitar player. Inadvertently, when a singer quit back in the ‘80s, I just started screaming and the rest is history. I never really thought about it. Also, when writing the vocal parts before, I had to [consider that I would be] playing guitar at the same time. So I wrote things a little more in line with the music. This time around, knowing that I’m not going to be playing guitar on stage, it opened up a lot of possibilities for me. It was the same with Neurotica in the sense that I didn’t have to play guitar, just sing. I didn’t have to follow anything in order to make it easier to get through. I realized it later after the band had broken up, that if the riff was [hums] “Dah-duh-deh-deh Dah-deh-deh,” then I’d be [rasps] “Motherfuckin’ rah-rah-rah.” The vocals would tend to go write along with it. That changed this time around. I could sort of free flow over the top of madness. It inadvertently made it catchier.
Also, being in Neurotica and singing, understanding melodies, and working with people like Brian Johnson from AC/DC, and then Slash in the course of auditioning for Velvet Revolver, and hearing people’s opinions about my voice … everything about Neurotica was so different than anything on the underground. We had a song on the radio. It was a different world, that commercial rock radio world where I was allowed to explore melody.
Coming back to Atheist 20 years later, that unintentionally crept in a bit. Not in the texture of my voice, but in the syncopation and style of how I sang the lyrics. I grew up a lot musically and vocally. I wasn’t as afraid to sing and scream in key, so to speak. I’ve always had a growly voice from drinking and smoking and talking far too much; there is that innate quality, which I can’t put my finger on, that is my voice. I think it came out a lot differently this time.
And I gotta tell ya, I have a lot of anger and emotion, moreso than I’ve ever had. I was really fuckin’ pissed off. There are moments on the album that it doesn’t sound like me; I actually listen to it and say “I don’t even know where that came from!” I certainly didn’t intend for it to sound like that, but I’m so glad that it did. The vocals are very sincere and convincing; they should be, because I really mean it. I’m very proud that it came through on the album. It’s nice to hear somebody feed it back to me as well. You bring up John Tardy — great example. I fuckin’ love his vocals. I just listened to “Find The Arise” last night –
That’s the jam!
I love those guys. They’re great people and good friends of ours for a long time. Obituary has never compromised. Just like us. They’ve never changed their style, for better or worse. They could’ve very easily tried to move on to another style of music. But they stayed true to themselves, and there is no other Obituary. There is no band that sounds like them. And, in my opinion, there’s nobody that sounds like Atheist. It can be a good and bad thing. If you want to be part of a movement or trend, and sell a bunch of records because you’re part of this movement, then great, sound like everybody else. Knock yourself out. I’m sure the Tardy boys and Trevor [Peres, Obituary guitarist] would agree with me that there’s nothing like being an individual and having your own style — and having an opinion and sticking to it. These things in life are very important. [wryly] It’s called integrity. [laughs]
And people don’t have it any more. Everybody’s quick to try to jump on to whatever’s happening. I could give two fuckin’ shits. All I know is what’s happening in my world is Jupiter. Hopefully, that [comes across] when people listen to it. Sometimes, people like that comfort level. The simpletons of the world will be happy with just hearing what they’re used to hearing so they don’t have to use their brains too much. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy and I don’t think Obituary does either. Things come out how they come out. Hopefully, they’ll be honest and sincere; in our case, they have to be.
So, 20 years of writing songs with different types of people [influenced] my vocals. I allowed myself to not be concerned with what somebody was going to think if there’s a little bit of melody. I know trendy little fuckers who just got into metal last week who’ll say, “Nooo! You’re singing!” There’s no singing, really, on it; there is, for the first time, melodic screaming. I’d never sing then scream then scream then sing — I don’t really like that world. I like it to be angry and ferocious and sincere and convincing. We use that word a lot. When Reign In Blood came out, it changed everybody’s life. And it’s still, hands down, easily the best death metal record on the planet. Ever. It’s 28 minutes of non-stop fuckin’ brutality. Their finest moment. I’ll argue with people ‘til I’m blue in the face. Reign In Blood is a cuh-lassic portrayal of the way death metal should be. It makes no bones, gets in and out in 28 minutes, and lets you get on with your life. That’s the way a record should be. Jupiter is 34 minutes. There were some complaints early on that it was too short. I disagree. If you want to stick a bunch of extra solos and extra wanking and overindulgent music, then go ahead; you’ll get your 40 minutes.
[slowly] But there is no filler on Jupiter. Lots of people say that. But there is not one moment on this record that should’ve been shortened. Not one. I can’t believe I’m saying that, and maybe that opinion will change later. But I’m proud of every single fuckin’ moment. If you get bored during this record, in 15 seconds it will turn the corner. You’ve listened to the record, so you know what I’m saying. There’s no chance to get complacent. If there’s a riff going on that you’re not fond of, it’s gonna change. By the end of the song, we’re going to find you and connect with you. I uh … I can’t remember what the original question was. [laughs]
I mean, do you really want to hear cookie monster vocals again? Or this shit where the kids are [five seconds of bawling squawks] the whole fucking time? It’s like, all right already! That’s how I feel. It’s like, do you need a hug, dude? What is wrong with you? The emo-screamo shit annoys the fuck out of me. That’s great that they can scream like that! I’d love to get those kids in the studio and combine that with some passion and knowledge, and they could be brilliant! Their screams are unbelievable! It’s amazing that it’s on the radio.
I remember thinking in 1990 that [with] this vocal style of mine, we’ll never be able to get on the radio. Me and Steve Flynn talk about how, if we were just starting today, we’d have a real fair shot of getting on the radio. We never imagined that screaming would be on any radio station. But now you can make a real nice living screaming and yelling. [laughs] It’s funny, but I wish … I don’t really like the mixture of screaming and singing. The Killswitch Engage approach. The first few bands that did it deserve a lot of credit for breaking new ground. At this point, I think we can all agree it’s a dead horse. Stop beating it. There are many, many bands doing great things that are different. But the trends — the bands that right now are having the most success — are almost degrading to the longevity of the scene. I hate to say that, but it’s the way I feel.
Well, not to be all self-important, but that’s part of our goal as music journalists. It seems like there are a lot of bands paying tribute to their favorite bands and styles by replicating them. If it’s profitable, no one stops bands from doing this or urges them to develop. So writers do. And this leads into another point about Atheist: Some artists seem to think it’s enough to just veer off the road and into a ditch; meanwhile, each Atheist detour takes the listener to amazing places. It’s not just that Atheist songs have a lot going on, but each piece is good and not merely contrasting the previous piece. Does that distinction make sense?
Thanks for saying that. I can tell you the most important part is the arrangement. There are so many bands that are waymoretechnical than us, and who cram way more notes into a four-minute song than we ever did. It’s not that our riffs are so technical, it’s the way they’re presented. You can take two pieces of filet mignon, and put them on a plate … I’m gonna try and say this correctly … You can throw them on a grill and serve them on a paper plate, or you can go to a fine restaurant; the steaks look different. The way they’re presented is different and they’ll taste different. I don’t know why. Just because.
I can write a guitar riff that really isn’t that complicated, but by the time we orchestrate it, put drums to it — which gives me an idea for the second guitar — and then the bass comes in, it’s a different kind of technical. Like an orchestra. It’s not everybody playing the same thing together, which is like, okay good for you. You guys are really good at playing your notes, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a moment in “Live and Live Again” when the lyric is “It’s the rise, it’s the high noon, it’s the sunset,” and the music behind it is this emotional, soulful thing that you wouldn’t typically hear in an extreme metal song. The way it’s textured and put together, it’s heavy as fuck but it’s also very unique and not very technical. But it sounds technical. We tend to layer everything.
What I’ve noticed with a lot of today’s technical bands … this math metal thing that makes me want to vomit is like “one-two, one-two-three-four, one, one-two-three-four-five.” It’s like, really? That’s technical to you? That, to me, is not technical. In my world, that’s not impressive. I give credit to everybody who makes their own music. I love you for it. Congratulations. It’s great. You’ve got tons of kids on your MySpace and you’re super-popular. But art is not about popularity. It’s about longevity, influence, and breaking new ground. That’s what we try to do.
We’re not trying to blow anybody away with notes or how fast we can sweep or how fast we blastbeat. So many kids have blast beats at 280 beats per minute for the whole album. [pauses] Like, why? Are you trying to be the fastest drummer in the world? If you are, you don’t even need your band. Just go and play your drums that fast, and it will mean just as little. Upon looking back on 15 years of our career, it’s easy for me to see what the charm is with Atheist …