Shaefer, Kelly (Athiest) (October 2005)

An Interview With Kelly Shaefer of Atheist

I recently had an opportunity to interview Kelly Shaefer, founder, vocalist and guitarist for technical death metal pioneers Atheist, thanks to Relapse Record's 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...

Jan-Mikael Erakare: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. I'm 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 - great stuff; certainly different than your work with Atheist.

Kelly Shaefer: Thanks.

Atheist - Piece of Time (1989/2005)JME: What does the reissue of the Atheist catalogue signify for the future of "thinking man's metal"?

KS: These albums are an important piece of the puzzle, and it's 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 wasn't 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 wasn't. 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?

Atheist - Unquestionable Presence (1991/2005)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 can't say enough about the newer bands and where they've taken it. I'm not one of those guys that says "ahh ... these kids ... we did it better. " We did open doors for possibilities -- planted seeds and watered them, too! There are bands that don't care about the template. Dillinger Escape Plan springs to mind, they push boundaries.

I've explored so many different kinds of music since leaving Atheist - I'm a fan of all kinds. I'm not solitary about the soundtrack to my life. Back in the day, I wouldn't 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 -- amazing kid; 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, everyone's 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 that's 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! That's as close as I ever got.

I was ... 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 doesn't necessarily give you the right to try and sway people's 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 don't want to have a political slogan on my rolling papers. Music can be a high for people who don't do drugs or explore any vices, so to speak, that allows them to explore a different part of their brain ... so there's 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 you've 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. I'm engulfed in the process, and I'm approaching it like everything I do. I'm reading as much as I can to gain as much knowledge as possible. I'm looking forward to the execution of it, being a father and of being really good at it. It's 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?

KS: (laughs) hope to not have to reissue the first one. I'm sure she'll get it right the first time!

Atheist - Elements (1993/2005)JME: I'd 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 man's Prozac..."

KS: It's easy for people to back away from that issue when you put the words "pot" and "parent" in the same sentence. I don't 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 I've 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. I'm not an activist though. I just have strong opinions!

It's 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 won't be afraid to educate my daughter... it's all about knowledge... in every aspect of life - music, politics, running a business - knowledge. I'm not going to hide things from her and then turn her loose without a clue when she's 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 they'll lie and turn on you to protect themselves. Reality TV is an elementary classroom for watching people's 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 friend's 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... there's 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 that'll last another 15 years. I wanna write a "Dream On" or "Bohemian Rhapsody"... that one song that's definitive of me... definitely hard to do in death metal!!

JME: Music seems to run in 20 year cycles. We're ready for the next big thing. What will it be?

KS: They'll never make cars the way they used to... the Chevelles and Camaros... they don't make motors like that anymore no matter how much we scream for it they're gone. I don't know that we'll get that kind of virtuoso again, but hopefully someone innovative in a different way. Then it'll take us 10 years to appreciate them, too!

In this Protools era of recording, it's hard to get anything organic. You don't know whether they're 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. That's why I appreciate the Queens of the Stone Age ... it's real not doctored!

JME: I went to see Steve Vai and Dream Theater recently - the virtuosos are still out there and playing.

KS: No, you're right, there are still a small group of guys keeping it going. I'd 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, I'm working on getting a small tour together for Europe for next year, we never got to play these songs live with Steve Flynn... everyone's excited about doing it - everyone's on board - Tony Choy, Rand Burkey, me, Flynn... really looking forward to it!

JME: Any final thoughts?

KS: Yeah ... 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. {no longer active -ed.} and {ditto -ed.}.

Thanks very much for this opportunity to speak my mind!

Piece Of Time (1989/2005)
Unquestionable Presence (1991/2005)
Elements (1993/2005)
Unquestionable Presence: Live At Wacken (2009)
Jupiter (2010)

Added: October 15th 2005
Interviewer: Jan-Mikael Erakare

Artist website:
Hits: 1586
Language: english

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