Latest release: Dystopia (Century Media/EMI)
Florida’s Iced Earth have always come up with interesting ideas during their career that now spans more than two decades. Topics like the American Civil War, horror story characters and their two-album Setian saga demonstrate their huge well of creativity. The most recent album titled Dystopia is based on the crushingly bleak themes that such a title invokes, and takes inspiration from the likes of V and Dark City among others.
Since Iced Earth began, the leader with the vision has and always will be guitarist and songwriter Jon Schaffer. His tenacity has seen some interesting personnel changes over the years. So when returned vocalist Matt Barlow left to spend time with his family after the dynamically powerful Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens’ tenure effectively expired, the vocalist slot was once again empty. Former Into Eternity frontman Stu Block soon auditioned and nailed the gig. For Dystopia, his contribution to Iced Earth is strong and intense with a wail that will peel paint from walls. In light of their first ever tour to Australia it seemed apt to chat to the new vocalist about his first ever album with the band, and other things…
Q: So, you’re on your way to Australia and it is the first ever time Iced Earth have been here. How is it for you being part of a band with such a massive legacy and to be touring extensively?
A: I can’t wait to get my swimming trunks and might try a little surfing. It’s an amazing thing because I’ve been a fan of Iced Earth before I was even in Iced Earth and if you are a metalhead, I’m sure you’re into them. It was a great opportunity for me to come into a band that has such a strong, passionate fan base and such a great roster of wonderful music. The icing on the cake, brother, would be that we put a really kick ass album out and we’re really proud of it. So, I’m the new guy and we’ve put out a new album with this band and I’m really happy with way things are going; everything from the live show to the camaraderie of the band to the way the fans are receiving us with me as the frontman.
Q: How do you approach the vocal parts for the slightly older material that say Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens or Matt Barlow was performing?
A: I approach it the way I would do it man, and just kind of do what I do. I mean, I can do the high stuff and I can sing the high chest stuff so I can definitely get by, I just have to approach things maybe sometimes a little bit differently. It is cool because is a great learning experience for me, maybe helping me find new ways of hitting notes and of singing that style of vocal. It is a really cool learning process.
Q: How much input did you have in the songwriting for Dystopia?
A: I co-wrote ten songs with Jon. Jon didn’t want just a hired gun, he wanted someone who can write music too so I did it and helped co-write ten songs on this latest album.
Q: Some parts have the low vocals doubled with a high vocal such as near the end of the song ‘Days of Rage’.
A: Yeah, in ‘Days of Rage’ I do throw a low death metal vocal in there and then the high falsetto as the prominent vocal. It’s cool that you noticed that, man, because it just adds to the whole pissed off aspect of it. In ‘Boiling Point’ I used the same technique. That’s cool, man, you got it right on the money, brother.
Q: So how do you do it live?
A: I pick the high vocal because that is the most prominent. I guess I should start getting Freddie [Vidales – bass] to do some death metal vocals. He’s a death vocal guy so maybe I could get him to do that.
Q: How do you look after your voice on the road?
A: I get a lot of sleep and I drink a lot of water. I keep my vocal chords hydrated at all times. I probably drink about four litres of water a day. I pee a lot (laughs). Yeah, man, a lot of water and try to get lots of sleep and try not to party too hard even though sometimes it is tough not to and I warm up before gigs.
Q: Are there any songs from the back catalogue that you want to do live but Jon doesn’t want to do anymore?
A: Ah, man I wanted to do ‘Dracula’ but that has been done a lot so we had to put it on the back burner. I think I’ll get my wish soon because I am like an annoying little kid asking their mother for some candy. I’ll keep poking them going, ‘‘Dracula’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Dracula’’. So, I think he’ll cave in one day. But that is the only one, really. He is open to everything, man. If we really want to do a song, we’ll do it.
Q: Are there any songs from the back catalogue that are a struggle to perform?
A: Not really, no. I’m really doing things in the way I way that I would do it. All the notes are there and the delivery is there so I’m really happy.
Q: The question you probably get all the time; what was the audition process like?
A: It was cool. Actually, it was really laid-back. When I got flown out to play with Jon, I guess, in essence, to see what this kid has, then he picked me up from airport and right away I felt comfortable with him. I’d already toured with them once before but never really talked to him much. I was already sort of comfortable in being around and stuff like that. We just started talking about everything from politics to music to our families. We really clicked as friends and then as soon as we hit the studio, I mean, it was a little nerve- wracking for me because I don’t know what is going on in his head. After the first couple of songs we recorded, I saw it in his eyes man, I could tell that he was really into it and he offered me the gig and I couldn’t refuse, my friend, you can’t refuse the Don of ‘the Family’.
Q: How does it compare to your old band, Into Eternity?
A: All I can say is that it is a totally different beast. That’s all I can really say.
Q: Did you get involved in the production of the new album at all?
A: Not really, just the lyrical and melodic aspect. It is Jon and Jim Morris who do all of the producing of the songs. I’m not a song arranger and I’m not a songwriter but with Jon’s music I really came up with some cool stuff. I can maybe hope to one day become a better songwriter but this is his thing, right, and he has been writing these songs for a long time and he really knows how to arrange a song. He has proven that time and time again. So, he asked for my input, which is really cool. In a few songs he would ask, ‘What do you think, Stu? Should I put a solo here or not, should I extend this bridge?’, and all this sort of stuff. So I would give him my input which was really cool. He is the producer guy, man, and he really coached me really well on these vocals too. When I did this album, at the beginning I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m a decent vocalist’ and stuff like that meaning, I’m confident, you know, I know I can do what I need to do to make it in this level of music. Both Jim and Jon coached me on how to deliver a recorded vocal and what or what not to do and how to not stress out my vocals. That was something that I had struggled with before. So this whole process I felt as though I was this young Padawan; I was a sponge that wanted to soak up as much knowledge as possible because Jim Morris and Jon have been doing this for a long time. I look up to those guys and I’d be a fool not to listen to the stuff they are telling me so I learned a lot from that album. On the next album, I am sure I am going to learn tonnes too.
Q: The breakdown vocal harmonies of the song ‘Dystopia’ reminded me of recent Trivium material, in the way vocals are sustained.
A: Oh really? Well, that’s cool, I talked to Corey [Beaulieu, guitars] a few times on Facebook and he’s expressed that he was into my previous band Into Eternity. When I got into Iced Earth he sent me a message and he seems like a really cool guy. I don’t know any of the rest of the guys but they’re probably all awesome dudes. I would love to tour with Trivium, please tell them, man, we’d love to meet up and tour.
Q: I’ll try. So, what sort of influences have molded your singing style?
A: For the high vocals it is Rob Halford and of course there’s Bruce Dickinson. Also, Daniel Heiman from Lost Horizon is great. I don’t think he’s doing metal anymore but he put out a couple of great records with Lost Horizon. Those records are some of the best examples of powerful power metal vocals with some of the highest vocals I have heard. Daniel is a big one for me, along with Rob, Bruce, Geoff Tate, Russell Allen, Matt Barlow and Tim Owens. The list is endless.
Q: Have you spoken to Matt recently?
A: No, I haven’t actually.
Q: For the concept albums and character driven songs, I suppose Jon has a cinematic vision of the song. So do you have to alter the delivery and sort of act the part?
A: For songs like ‘V’, ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘Dark City’ I’m just trying to be myself, man. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re writing about in the songs, really or you have to put yourself into the emotion of the song. So for ‘Dark City’, I had to make it almost more aggressive because of the subject matter of being taken and used as human experiments to figure out the human soul so that their species can live on. So that is a kind of a selfish thing. I put myself in their shoes and that is the kind of vocal that came out. When you’re talking about a song like ‘Dante’s Inferno’, it’s not really acting but maybe there is in a way given you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is journeying through the nine planes of Hell and how much torment it is and you’re singing about demons that are burning in the fiery depths of Hell. So you’ve got to sing it like that, man. There has to be a certain amount of viciousness there. I guess there is a certain amount of acting in it when you’re singing but I think it is more that your true emotions coming out, that is the best policy.
Q: How do you remember all of the lyrics? There are some pretty epic, long songs.
A: To be honest with you, I’ve rehearsed this stuff a lot and I’ve got a good system down on how to memorise lyrics and stuff like that. It is my own little thing that I do and I think everyone has their own thing, especially when you have to remember a lot of lyrics. When I hit the first show in Germany there were two or three songs that I didn’t want to screw up so I had to take the lyrics to the stage. But after about two weeks into the European tour, I had all the songs down. The crazy thing is that all of the songs that I memorized, we’re not doing them all because there is only so much you can do. I memorized 28 songs. It is a lot for the human brain to take in. What I did was that I lived ever song everyday. I got up at eight in the morning and started listening to and rehearsing the song for up to eight or nine hours a day in my own little practice spot. I have my own little jam spot and once I was totally comfortable with the song, I’d go to the jam spot and I’d crank it and just pretend that all of the guys were with me and be like I was playing a show. I’d jump around and put everything I had into it. To be a fly on the wall, I would have looked like a crazy man but that is how I did it. When you really have passion for something and love something, it all comes naturally. Even after this tour on the time off, I’ve got eight songs I need to learn. I think I can do it though, I’ll learn them.
Q: Well, it’ll be great to finally see Iced Earth live in Australia.
A: Alright man, we’ll see you guys soon.
Iced Earth tour Australia with LORD on the following dates:
4/4: Billboard the Venue, Melbourne VIC
5/4: HiFi Bar, Sydney NSW- ALL AGES