Interview with Kelly Shaefer of Atheist: From The Eye Of The Storm

As mainman for progressive death metal architects Atheist, Kelly Shaefer is well aware of his place in the genre’s history. Now that technical playing is all the rage in metal bands from Russia to France to Kansas, whether they know it yet or not, the new crop of leaders of the heavy progressive movement owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Shaefer and his mates.

Emerging from the same scene as brutal death legends like Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel and Obituary, as Shaefer puts it, Atheist was “an outcast band in an outcast scene.” In an era where fans were clamoring for the sickest and most deranged metal possible, Atheist was a band determined to make heavy music that was lucid, diverse and beautiful. Incorporating elements of Latin music, jazz and fusion into metal has only recently become accepted, so one can imagine how hard it was to get away with that in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. According to Shaefer, you didn’t.

Years of being mistreated and misunderstood took their toll, and after completing their third record, 1993’s Element, the band called it quits in order to pursue other, more practical fields.

Seven years later, due to growing demand, their three full-lengths were remastered and rereleased and finally, in 2006, the band returned to the stage to the European festival circuit. The fan response was so overwhelmingly positive that in 2008 Atheist announced plans to begin work on a new studio album and a full-fledged return.

And a dominant return it shall be.

The new record, appropriately titled Jupiter, is another colossal and surging mass of furious liquid metal: A labyrinth of aural twists and turns; where one riff ends and another equally terrific one begins. The fusion influences are less overt than 1991’s Unquestionable Presence or 1989’s Piece Of Time, and the churning soundscape hooks you both consciously and subliminally, demanding repeat listens.

Below, Shaefer shares his views on the continuing innovation of what he helped create, the music press (got me a little nervous), his contemporaries new and old, even the Pope (he’s not a fan).

What was it like coming up in the same scene as Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel and Cynic?

It was quite a crop of metal in those days. We were from just outside of Tampa— maybe 40 minutes. So yeah, we were cut from that cloth, but we were sort of an outcast band within an outcast scene as it was, so we never really fit in, although we were part of that whole first movement.

Cynic came a little afterwards. Initially it was Morbid Angel, Obituary, Malevolent Creation, Atheist. And then, in the years to come there were a lot more bands that started popping up out of Florida. It was just incredible times, really. Probably the one scene in this kind of metal, even more so than Sweden, that just really has so many bands. While it was happening we didn’t realize that it was a scene, we kind of assumed that it was that way everywhere. As the years have gone by and we reflect back on it, it was a pretty interesting time for Florida.

What did you mean when you said you were an ‘outcast band among outcast bands?’

Well, anyone who is familiar with the band knows that we certainly didn’t play music like anybody else, for better or for worse. We chose a very technical route, which was not always popular. Bands like Death and Morbid Angel were seeking the utmost brutality. We were seeking the same brutality, but we were trying to do it at a very articulate, intellectual way. As opposed to knuckle-dragging, full-on metal, you know?

We had other influences, so we certainly incorporated it all as much as we could, and in the early days that was not so welcome. We were alone on a street corner of technical metal that had no other bands like us.

Certainly, the common denominator in our music was the speed and the double bass and the aggressiveness. But all the jazz influence and stuff like that, and the complexities, were not really welcomed with open arms by the music buying public in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s. It wasn’t until 15 years later that people understood our music. And these days, it’s just a far different landscape for the music of Atheist to sort of blossom and now there’s hundreds and hundreds of technical bands, and one’s more technical than the next.

So it’s kind of a little bit of redemption, because we certainly believed in what we were doing back then and wished that everybody else would look for better musicianship. Inevitably, all we wanted to happen was for this music to last 20 years, but never anticipated that it would in the way that it has. And when I say ‘our music,’ I mean not Atheist’s music, but the scene in general; the genre of extreme metal.

Back in the early days of it, there was not that much focus on musicianship as much as there was on imagery and who could be the sickest and who could write the most disgusting horror pile. It was just different. We had different motives. In the beginning we paid the price for it, because we didn’t have a lot of success. There were no bands for us to go out and tour with. We were basically forced to be sandwiched between full-on death metal bands or, in one instance we went on tour with Candlemass, which was a completely slow, doom metal band. So, there was really no winning for us back then.

These days, obviously, it’s far easier for us to find bands to tour with, so it’s nice to be back.

So was it a conscious effort to include those smatterings of jazz, or was there another band that you guys really looked up to?

We were always huge fans of Rush and we were always huge fans of Slayer, and we loved both of those bands equally for different reasons, and so it was a natural progression for us. We loved the musicianship that Rush always showcased, and even bands like Yes and all that, we just loved complex music. But we loved the fire and aggression of brutal death metal.

I don’t think we realized it before we got midway through Unquestionable Presence, writing-wise, that that was kind of our template and that was our thing, to catch people off guard. We noticed that people were easily anticipating the other bands around us and know what they were gonna do.

You can pretty much listen to the first song and bank on the fact that the next song was gonna be just as gross and sick and fast. We wanted to be diverse and kind of just change things up a little bit. We never intended to start an entire genre of music. We were just having a hard time to get anybody to like us.

It really was bad; we had rotten food thrown at us, we were booed off the stage, it was fucking horrible. That was one of the reasons why we broke up. We were just like, ‘fuck it, this sucks.’

And just sort of organically, and hugely ironically, our music became better understood 15 years later. I think the internet played a huge role in that and a lot of young metal fans stepped up, in the new generation, and said that they were tired of the knuckle-dragging metal, so to speak. And next thing you know, times were good for us.

I like that term, ‘knuckle-dragging metal.’

Yeah, you look at the evolution of man and metal has sort of evolved in the same way. And it’s supposed to evolve; it’s not supposed to continue to be that way. So when I see people ask, ‘Is this record anything like Unquestionable Presence?’ I say, “No. We shaved the hair off our backs and cut our fucking beards and we’re not cavemen anymore.” We’ve moved on.

Even though there are a lot of bands traveling the road that we helped pave, we still kind of do it in a very different way. Kids today are amazing. [This] generation, especially, is hugely talented and just virtuosos of their instruments and I think that’s brilliant and I think that’s what we always hoped would happen. But, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we had to come out and try and top that.

I don’t believe Jupiter is nearly as technical as some bands would say. But I think that it’s technical in a way that will help this music continue on for another 10 years. It’s about songs, not about an individual showcasing talent within a band. It’s about an entire band pooling all their talents together and showcasing them collectively, within the same arrangement and structure of a song. So that’s sort of our philosophy with music.

So given how much you guys struggled in the beginning, was it sort of vindicating when a band like Cynic comes out or when Death starts moving in a more progressive direction?

Yeah, well I met the Cynic guys after we’d done Piece Of Time and I went into the studio with them to do… [a] demo and I thought they were fucking incredible. They were obviously subscribing to the same philosophy [that we were], only they were more into jazz than we were, and a little less into metal. But we were definitely kindred spirits and it felt good to get with those guys.

Death, really we had a tumultuous relationship with Chuck [Schuldiner] in the early days. He was very anti jazz-in-metal, he didn’t think that that progression should be involved in metal and he was pretty outspoken about it, and so was I. I’m clearly a verbal person and have no problem sharing my opinions with whoever will listen. So me and Chuck had many verbal altercations about that. He was very protective—he was the godfather of death metal—and I think he felt like, ‘You’re not gonna come in and try to change what I’ve created.’ And we weren’t, nobody would be doing this music without the gift that Chuck gave us, by having the balls to do what he did.

But, in the latter years of his career, he became more progressive and once he got Sean [Reinert] and Paul [Masvidal] in the band, from Cynic, it wasn’t vindicating as much as it was ironic that he chose to follow that path in the latter years of his life.

These days there is a lot of vindication for what we were trying to preach back then. We certainly feel a little bit of redemption—not towards Chuck or any of that—but just in general as an artist we feel like, “Better late than never.”

As an artist, you want people to enjoy your art, I don’t think you should make art for people to enjoy, but you do hope that people will enjoy it. Otherwise, you know, who the fuck is ever going to see it, or hear it? So it’s nice.

[The comeback] just happened organically and naturally and that’s the part I’m most proud of; that we didn’t sell it, we didn’t push it down everybody’s throat. The people just sort of came and pulled us out of the ditch. That’s the sole reason why this happened; the demand of the music that we made so many years ago.

And, I don’t think that anybody thought that we were going to be able to pull it off with a new album, including us (laughs).

Once you started writing the music for Jupiter, did some of those concerns go away?

Absolutely. The first song that we wrote was “Second To Sun,” the opening track on the album. We just knew at that point that everything was going to be alright. It was really kind of effortless from that point forward. As far as worrying about it, we didn’t worry about it at all.

It was as if we were frozen in ice for 20 years and somebody melted us and we were like, “Hey, what’s up? Pack a bowl, man, let’s fucking keep writing.”

Me and Steve have known each other for so long that we have this special language and special way that we arrange songs. I’ve written hundreds of songs since we last worked together, but it never turns out sounding the way it does when me and him get together.

The whole time, I remember reading while we were writing, people were like, ‘Oh, there’s no way they can capture it again.’ Says who?

It’s so easy to be a hater and a naysayer but it’s very difficult to be a visionary and, sort of, an alpha-thought. I think that it’s important that people have their own individual opinions and not worry about what other people are saying about it or anything, and I think that there’s a lot of that today.

Can you talk for a bit about some of the lyrical themes on the album?

It’s a slew of topics. “Live And Live Again” is sort of my thoughts on evolution. It’s just shocking to me that people have such a hard time swallowing that theory and that people can still buy into that whole Bible story without any problems.

There are songs of perseverance and I really, took a direct stab, for the first time, at a topic that I feel has been swept under the rug, which is the Catholic church and the Pope sort of facilitating the molestation of children. I can’t say enough and I can’t say it loud enough how fucking disgusting that is that because of the cloth, this man is allowed to walk around freely, when technically he’s a criminal and if any one of us were to commit the crimes that he committed, we’d be arrested immediately.

“Faux King Christ” is pretty clear-cut, anti-organized religion. Some people may think that it’s a typical approach. My approach I feel is a very fresh set of circumstances that I’m proud of, in the way that I sort of laid it out. Instead of just presenting the problem, it’s about presenting the solution.

“Third Person” is really just about our experience of being so far from our music that we have the ability to just listen to it now and appreciate the good things and the bad things about our band and approach writing the new album together.

Lyrics are very important to this band and always have been. In this music, unfortunately, not many people pay attention to lyrics and, you know, not that many people spend that much time writing them, either. So that probably has a lot to do with it. I just try to find topics that speak to me and that are honest and carry weight, and that will hopefully last.

What are the touring plans in support of Jupiter?

We’re probably going to go out in February, in the States. We do have families and this is a different time in our lives where we’re not going to go out for seven months, eight months in a row. The same way we take our music and move forward in life, we’re going to do the same with touring.

So we’ll see how the album is doing. But we definitely look forward to bringing these songs to the States. I think it’s going to be the most explosive live show that we’ve ever had. It’s a lot different landscape now and it’s really exciting to go out and play the stuff.

So there’s going to be a big presence of the new album in the setlist?

No doubt. We’re back now to be relevant, not to be a dinosaur fucking tribute act. I think the music stands on its own two feet as being very relevant in 2010 and 2011, so we’re going to go out and bring a live performance that people don’t expect from a band like us.

I’m certainly not your typical death metal frontman. I like to come out, pull people in and make them become part of the concert. Much like the way Iron Maiden did. We’re right there in your fucking face and I think that these songs are going to translate well to the stage even more so than even our old stuff. Just a more contemporary sound with more explosive moments on Jupiter than we’ve ever had on any of the other records. So, I can’t wait.

I love the fans and we always do meet and greets. You and I both know that if people don’t buy records, you don’t get to go on tour, so I have those people to directly thank and I want to thank them. And I’m going to walk out and meet them because I wanna hear how they discovered our band.

Jupiter is available now through Season Of Mist records. Kelly assured me that a Cynic/Atheist tour would happen in 2011. For more info,