Kelly Shaefer Discusses The Return Of Atheist And New Album "Jupiter"
Band Photo: Atheist (?)
Legendary progressive death metal act Atheist is about to release a new full-length album entitled "Jupiter," which is the band's first studio album since 1993. Atheist vocalist Kelly Shaefer recently spoke with me about the long hiatus between albums, what he's been up to since '93, the themes of "Jupiter," and other topics as diverse as the pope and Bill Maher.
"I think we knocked it out of the park with this one, it’s the perfect continuation with where we left off," Shaefer stated about the new album. He also went on to further explain, "We’d just sit down and write and whatever happens, happens. That’s how we set our template. I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. I hate saying that, because everybody says that. If you are a fan of Atheist you are definitely going to love this record. It’s all over the place, and yet it’s right down the middle."
xFiruath: Atheist has already made quite a name for itself in the metal community, but can you give a little run down of the band’s history for anyone who is new to Atheist?
Kelly: Wow, that’s a tough one, that’s 20 years. We put out our first record “Piece of Time” in 1988 and it was very strange at the time. It didn’t really blend in with everything that was going on back then. We always sort of stuck out and had a tough time finding bands to tour with. In 1990 we wrote “Unquestionable Presence,” which was our second album and probably our most popular so far, or our most respected. It really tied into our style from there of jazz infused death metal with sort of provocative and insightful lyrics. It was a different approach and really focused on musicianship, that was always our thing back then as opposed to just brutality. We did our third record “Elements,” but that was with a different drummer. Our original drummer Steve Flynn was on the first two records. Our bass player Robert Patterson also was killed in 1990 right before we finished that second album. We have a lot of history.
Steve went on to college and I recorded one more record with a new drummer and then we broke up in 1993. It wasn’t until 2005 that our music had this major resurgence and influence on young technical bands in Europe. We started doing some shows to feel it out and re-issued the records on Relapse. The rest is history. We ended up playing to 60,000 people in Germany and 40,000 at Hellfest. Lots of club shows. Some people were finally getting it. It took them a long time but they finally understand the music now. So we had the opportunity to do a record. I think we knocked it out of the park with this one, it’s the perfect continuation with where we left off.
xFiruath: As you mentioned it’s been 1993 since the last album and now you guys are releasing the new one “Jupiter.” What will we hear on this album this time around and how has the band changed in all that time?
Kelly: If you don’t know the history of the band and the third album comes in then it’s very odd, because it’s very different and Latin influenced. In using a different drummer it wasn’t as fast and brutal, it’s more jazzy and most people in Eastern Europe prefer that record. “Jupiter” is a continuation of our second record “Unquestionable Presence.” It’s really an homage to both the first two albums. It’s easily the most brutal and ferocious album we’ve ever done. It’s the most explosive and has the best songs and our song writing has changed a lot in all that time. Me personally, I’ve had an opportunity to write with a number of different bands and work with producers in the rock world with Neurotica. So my experience bringing that back into Atheist is structure and being able to take chaotic madness of the technical aspect of Atheist and really hone it in and give people something to focus their eyes one. It helps pull it all together. It wasn’t really intentional but it just worked out that way. We’d just sit down and write and whatever happens, happens. That’s how we set our template. I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. I hate saying that, because everybody says that. If you are a fan of Atheist you are definitely going to love this record. It’s all over the place, and yet it’s right down the middle.
xFiruath: Where was “Jupiter” recorded?
Kelly: We recorded at Lead Belly in Atlanta with Matt Washburn and then we mixed with Jason Suecof, who was tremendous and really instrumental in making this a unique Atheist record. His production is staggering. It’s just the heaviest thing we’ve ever done. The tone and the sound of the drums and everything, he’d done bands like Chimaira and DevilDriver and Trivium and a lot of bands that have had success in a different branch of metal, but the common denominator is we all want great guitar sounds and good drum sounds. The technology has come a long way since 17 years ago. When you combine all the little things we do, people that know our music know every time you listen you hear something different. There’s a lot of little nuances and intricacies that make Atheist, Atheist. Back in the day the production never really allowed for that, we never really had big bucks to do that and do what Metallica did and stuff like that, where you could hear everything really clearly. These days the technology has allowed us to be really clever and really creative musically, with harmonies and different rhythms that would normally go unheard. Jason Suecof was really instrumental in making this a crystal clear interface record.
xFiruath: Is there a theme between the tracks and lyrics on “Jupiter?”
Kelly: No, not really. It covers a wide variety of things. The opening track is “Second to Sun” and it’s sort of an observation of the parallels between human beings and the sun and Jupiter and the sun, and my non-belief in organized religion. It all ties into the themes of Jupiter and how we’re all just a collection of atoms and we report to the sun. For the most part all religions have sort of spawned from the folklore of the sun. I choose to believe in the sun and the moon and nature more than I do in organized religion. Jupiter, being second in size to the sun, started making me think about why people can’t walk outside and realize that that’s god enough. At the end of the day “god” is something that’s inside of you. It’s love, it’s life, it’s not a story, it’s not in the Bible. I just believe in the earth so much more. Jupiter is this planet that has so much mystery, it doesn’t really have a surface, it’s just gases and molecules and atoms, but it’s huge. It’s the second largest thing in the solar system. The great red spot is really intriguing, with the storm that happens in the spot non-stop with 11,000 mph winds.
There’s another song called the “Fraudulent Cloth” that deals with my belief that the pope should be arrested if he steps on American soil under the Ricoh Statute. He participated in criminal activity and the Ricoh Statutes, the same one that brought the mob down, should really apply to him too. That’s not going to please a lot of people when they read that, certainly not Catholics, but it’s done in an articulate and intelligent way and it’s a valid question. There’s another song called “Live and Live Again” which is sort of my take on evolution and the puzzling nature of how people have such a hard time grasping it while seeing evidence of evolution every single day. They’d rather believe in the Tooth Fairy story than real, concrete evidence. “Tortoise the Titan” is a very strange song title, it’s about slow and steady wins the race. Taking life slow and appreciating life every day instead of worrying about what’s going to happen five years from now. Just live each day to the fullest and live in the now. If you can connect the nows all together your life will be a lot better and more positive. So there’s a lot of different subjects.
xFiruath: My wife and I both run atheist blogs and write about the topic frequently so I love the themes. You were mentioning how the pope should be arrested if he comes to the U.S., and I’m wondering if you’d heard about evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins trying to have the pope arrested when he goes to the U.K.
Kelly: No I did not, that’s fantastic. I’m going to have to look that up. That’s amazing. How come that’s not all over the news? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the term “atheist” either, because to me that’s an organized train of thought as well, even though it’s a great name for a band. My beliefs fall more in line with believing in yourself and being more accountable for your actions. People don’t give themselves enough credit. When people put two feet on the floor each day that’s god enough for me to walk out and face the sun and face the moon, you get through your day and accomplish as much as you can in your lifetime. I truly believe that organized thought like that is almost a mental illness, and an epidemic of mammoth proportions. When you watch a congregation of holy rolling people on TV, doesn’t that scare you? People can be that brainwashed and that controlled with their thoughts, that is frightening to me. If you look at Al Qaeda and you look at some of the things where organized trains of thought have created violent activity, that’s what my daughter has to look forward to when she grows up. That’s terrifying to me and I’ll do anything I can to stop that shit.
I really do truly believe that he should be under the same laws everybody else has to live under. Religion doesn’t pay taxes. We have another song on the album called “Faux King Christ” and it shows my disdain for religion and the amount of leeway and privilege they are given. It’s disgusting, especially in these times with everyone struggling and losing their homes and losing their businesses. The economy is in really tough times and look at the church getting a free ride. Not only getting a free ride, but abusing it and taking advantage of it. Eddie Long, who did the service at the Martin Luther King funeral, and who is a really highly acclaimed preacher who worked with young black men, just got caught in a gay sex scandal. He was completely against gay marriage and gay rights and gay behavior in general. It just came out that he had a number of different boys and he took them all the way to New Zealand to do it. Everybody in America is outraged by the behavior of Lindsay fucking Lohan and you’ll see a panel of three people on CNN talking about it. I think, really? Who gives a fuck about Lindsay Lohan? Do you understand what is happening with religion and its infiltration of the way we live and our freedoms and the things we allowed to do? Don’t get me started, I could write a whole book on that shit.
I’ve always tackled those issues with Atheist in the lyrics, but it’s always done in an articulate way and not in a combative way. Much the same way that Bill Maher presents facts, I have a lot of respect for the way he presents things. “Religulous” was an amazing movie and just an example of accountability. If you make somebody accountable for their statements, and just simply by him asking somebody to explain it, the frustration and anger that came out of them, just for questioning their beliefs and asking them to explain them. This is clearly an issue where everybody is on one side of the fence. The more people that are on their side of the fence, the more right they think they are. It takes great balls to stand alone on the other side of the fence and say “I think every one of you people are wrong and you are all crazy.” And that’s all he really did, as one person he walked up to numerous religious organizations and leaders of such and just basically questioned them and their feathers all got ruffled.
xFiruath: Outside of Atheist what have you been doing lately? I saw that back in June you did a bunch of acoustic songs.
Kelly: Since ’93 I put Neurotica together and we went on tour with Ozzfest in 2002. I really took a shot at spending years with that band and put together a lot of great songs. I hope to get them out again. I got caught up in that world of trying to get on the radio and play that game, but in the course of that I got to work with a lot of really great people and learn how to write songs better and learn how to sing instead of screaming. That led me to do some acoustic stuff. I love contrast and love to fit into different things. Brian Johnson from AC/DC is the one who discovered Neurotica and produced our first album. He’s been a great friend to me over the years and he’s really the one who pulled me out of my shell as a singer and made me feel like I was a singer and not just a death metal dude. In the course of doing that I got more brave and decided I’ve gone to 11 musically with screaming and gone fast and heavy, and with death metal I’ve never turned it down to 1. It’s equally as hard to turn it down to 1 as it is to go 100 miles per hour.
So I tried to fit myself into that mould just to challenge myself musically and I wrote a whole batch of songs simultaneously as I was writing all the Atheist guitar riffs. Some days I’d write Atheist stuff and some days I’d write a really melodic acoustic song. I put them up on the website. They are really raw and just sketches, but I’m going to put out a solo record in 2012 of straightforward, really well done rock songs outside the bounds of my normal songs. It’s good as an artist to paint different colors and use different brushes. So many people get caught up in their scene in America. What was inspiring to me was touring in Europe doing reunion shows, which was amazing for us. We couldn’t believe that our music lasted this long, much less it was 17 and 18 and 19 year old kids that were reviving it. They were listening to our records like they just came out. The fact that our art was still holding weight in 2005 was just amazing to us.
You can attribute that to doing things in a weird way and not just following trends. In America everybody is so trendy and just can’t wait to be spoon fed the next best thing. In Europe it’s a lot different and is an individualist, I guess I won’t say everybody, but predominately you see an individualism you don’t see in America. It was inspiring to me because I took a lot of heat from the death metal community about Neurotica and being on the radio and doing things like that, it’s very narrow minded sometimes. I took quite a bashing on the ‘net because of it. It used to bother me, but now I welcome it. I’d much rather that people be talking than not talking at all. I’m going to do what I want to do as an artist and I’m not going to let people dictate where I need to be artistically. Touring in Europe really helped me clear that up and working with Brian Johnson really helped me a lot with my confidence on that side of things.
xFiruath: What do you think of the new Cynic and Pestilence material and do you still keep in touch with the guys from those bands?
Kelly: Oh yeah, I talk to Paul all the time. We just saw them in Atlanta a few months ago. I lived with Paul for a summer down in Miami and we’ve always been friends. The first time I saw those guys I was just blown away and I have enormous respect for them. We’d already done “Piece of Time” and I went to go see them and when Steve was going to go to college Lee Harrison from Monstrosity was actually going to try out for drums and he’s the one who introduced me to them years ago. Ever since then I’ve always been amazed at their abilities. I had been following them through Aeon Spoke, which was their band after “Focus” and before this new era of Cynic, and I was amazed at Paul’s vocals. He decided he wanted to fucking sing and not just scream. The stuff he did in Aeon Spoke was beautiful. I was really proud of him for having the balls to do it. It’s a boys club full of chest pounding, metal loving people who don’t like for you to go outside the bounds. I really respected him for doing that.
When we went out to Europe for the first time, when I got back I called him and said “Paul, you’ve got to get Cynic back together. You’ve got to go to Europe.” Our music now means more to these people than it ever did. So that’s what he did and they went on to do their new record. I think Paul already had a wealth of new material ready to roll that he was able to adjust to the new era of Cynic, which isn’t just the original Cynic I remember. They used to be a lot more metal focused and now they’ve really gotten into a lot of textures and soundscapes and moods and stuff. They are just so technically proficient and I can’t say enough about their abilities. I love Cynic to death and I’d love to hear a little more metal out of them. A little more stink on their next record would be great, if I’m being brutally honest and I have told Paul that. It’s a beautiful piece of art they’ve made and they should be proud of it.
With Pestilence, to be honest with you I haven’t listened to a lot of that. Up until a few months ago me and Patrick Mameli had a long feud about a lot of things and we didn’t see eye to eye on things. We met up in the Czech Republic last year and talked about things. I think he understood why I was upset. We had just lost our bass player in 1990, he was killed on tour with us, and it was very difficult to find somebody who played like he played. We got Tony, who was in Cynic initially back in the day, and we got him and went to Morrisound where Pestilence was recording what would be “Testimony of the Ancients.” They basically stole Tony away, because they had more money at the time. Without any condolences or any sort of remorse about it, for the situation we were in a band, and it felt like we were really slighted by that. In the years to come Pestilence was always sort of tagged in with technical metal and I really always felt that had more to do with having Tony in the band than the band actually being a part of that movement. Purists will tell you that the pecking order is a little different than that. I was really a huge fan of the “Malleus Maleficarum” era of Pestilence. Me and Roger Patterson, before he died, we used to listen to that all the time.
Patrick is a creative guy, but I definitely don’t like C-187, I thought that was garbage. I’m a very outspoken guy and I don’t want people to be offended by my answer, but at least you’re getting a real answer and not a politically correct one. For the record, me and Patrick are totally cool now. We have an understanding. That was 15 years that was brewing. As we get older we get wiser and realize not to sweat the small shit. To me, I just needed Patrick to know it wasn’t small shit and it really mattered to us. That was a really difficult time for our band and to steal our bass player away right after we just gotten that album done eight weeks prior and had just watched our best friend die was kind of heartless I thought. He could have got anybody to play on that record and they weren’t trying to make technical metal at that time. There weren’t a lot of guys who could play those bass lines on “Unquestionable Presence” and I think that can be seen now and people can look back after so many years and realize why we were so worried. It’s still hard to find somebody who plays like that, and that’s why we were so blown away by those events.
xFiruath: Anything else you’d like to mention about the album?
Kelly: I know a lot of people are skeptical and I have to say that we were as well before we got rolling. We didn’t know what it was going to sound like and a lot of people asked us what it’s going to be like. Now that it’s done and we know I dare you to put it in your car stereo and turn it up all the way and ride down the road and not feel like that’s the perfect successor to “Unquestionable Presence.” It’s rich in textures and harmonies and has some really powerful, explosive metal. If you are a fan of metal you should be able to dig this record. It’s very to the point and so we hope everybody goes out November 8th and checks it out.
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