Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have been presented with an opportunity. It was October 29th and I was about to interview Kelly Shaefer, frontman for the legendary, since-reunited (sort of) death metal band Atheist. This was, and is, kind of a big deal. With the release of Atheist’s first release in 17 years looming, the interview could have gone either way. Luckily, as you’ll find out, it went pretty damn well. For 25 minutes we talked about Jupiter, the nineties, family life and yes, Tony Choy’s name came up. And before you expect controversy, just in case you misread anything, I’ll reiterate something here: Tony and Atheist are not feuding and Tony and Kelly are on good terms. Shit happened, as it does, and in reading this it’s important to remember that.
Kelly Shaefer: How are you, man?
Tyler Munro: I’m good. How does it feel to be back?
KS: It feels good, man. It’s all really been super-positive, which is refreshing. I mean, compared to our past, it’s been a lot less struggle to get people to kind of understand the music these days. It’s good times for Atheist.
TM: Is that relaxing to kind of just be able to do your thing and not have to…
KS: … yeah, explain overtly. The landscape for music is so much more forgiving now for experimentation. It’s not quite as – it doesn’t take people by – it doesn’t blindside people quite as much. Yeah, we’re allowed to be us, unapologetically, which is nice.
TM: You kind of did the groundwork anyways. I think you kind of paid the price, but at least it’s…
KS: Yeah, it was a tough road to pave, but it’s nice to cruise one-hundred miles an hour on it this time as opposed to dodging potholes in the road and (laughs) rocks and boulders that the road used to be paved with. It has changed quite a lot in twenty years, but it’s good to be back, definitely.
TM: It seems like your whole scene is kind of being reborn right now. Cynic came back and then you guys are back – Hellwitch is back. You’ve got a lot of them kicking around again.
KS: Yeah, I think what started the whole thing was just the reunion shows in 2005 for when we reissued the records. At that point Cynic wasn’t back together yet and we went over and did those shows in Europe and I came home and called Paul [Masvidal of Cynic] and I was like, “Dude, our music is – the music of Cynic and Atheist is well-appreciated in Europe now. You’ve got to put the boys back together.” He was like, “You know, I had a dream,” he was telling about this dream he had and I was like, “Well, it’s time to do it.” So, they went over and did some shows and saw the same thing we saw. I think they were in a better position to do a new record because they all live together in L.A. It was hard for us to be thinking about doing a new record because we live so far apart. So, obviously, them coming out with their new record first was a great way for us to sort of sit back and see how that goes, and it seems to have went really well. It wasn’t a really deciding factor, it was more about us but the perception – even you just said as if we waited for everybody else to do it, but we thought about it in 05’ but just didn’t really see where that was – we hadn’t realized the way the scene was right now and the way that people can appreciate that kind of extreme progressive metal. So, it’s good for everybody. Yeah, I didn’t know Hellwitch was back together. I haven’t talked to Pat [Ranieri of Hellwitch] in a long time.
TM: Yeah, they put out a new album last year.
KS: They did?
KS: Holy fuck, he never even called me (laughs). I’ve known him for a long-ass time.
TM: Plus, you’ve got bands like Obituary and all of them still kicking so it seems like Florida is kind of taking the reins back from Europe, who kind of took it for awhile.
KS: Well, you know, there’s a lot of great music all over the world, but it’s nice to see everybody back out. Malevolent has a new record; tons of different bands from all shapes and sizes of Florida. I think Morbid Angel is working on a new one. Yeah, the next year is going to be a lot of fun.
TM: How was it having Jason Suecof mix the album because he kind of comes from that same scene too, right?
KS: Yeah, he grew up on this music. He’s really young. He and his brother grew up on Death and Atheist and Cynic and stuff like that. So, he was the perfect guy to – you know, he really understood exactly what it was we were going for. He did a great job. He’s a tone-goblin. He knows exactly how to capture really heavy music in a great way. He knows how to make a hot mix for sure.
TM: I noticed that this doesn’t really sound like a ‘come-back’ album. It sounds like it could have easily come out after Elements – not necessarily in a bad way. It doesn’t sound dated or anything, it just sounds like a natural next step.
KS: Yeah, I don’t know that we could have done it any other way. We don’t look around at what’s going on… it’s not really a comeback. Our music has been here for years – we haven’t been – but, our music is more relevant now than it was in the nineties. For us it was just a matter of unfinished business between me and Steve [Flynn, Drummer] and just getting together and doing what we do. I mean, it’s the only way we’ve ever written. We’re not even influenced by the things that we love much less things that we don’t. It’s always been an internal thing for us to write this kind of music. We know what we want to sound like and what we try to get out of this band. I mean, I can go and jam with a bunch of other guys and completely write different music altogether, but when me and Steve get together this is the shit that comes out; it’s nice.
TM: This basically was the result of you guys sort of jamming again, right? You and Steve?
KS: Yeah, it’s just like old days, man. Just get in a room and just doing it up. It’s the organic way – just sitting in front of each other and bashing it out.
TM: You’ve both kept kind of busy. I mean, he has Gnostic going, and you share some members with them, but you auditioned for a couple of bands; you’ve kept yourself busy. Does it make it easier to sort of kick it back into swing with Atheist being still around?
KS: Yeah, I mean, I never stopped. I spent eight years with Neurotica and we toured on OzzFest 2002 and then after that I auditioned for Velvet Revolver. I went up to L.A. and wrote some songs with them. Since I’ve been back, I have a band called Pyroclastic and I put another band together called Unheard and I’ve been working on Solo stuff and a lot of acoustic stuff. So, I mean, I’m all over the map when it comes to music. It’s my life; it’s all I do – besides painting. It was really just a matter of turning in the opposite direction and rolling back into jamming with my old friend. It was as if, really, we were just frozen in a block of ice for twenty years and someone just thawed our ass out and said “hey, make a record.” Okay, and off we went.
It’s really just more of a continuation of Unquestionable Presence. I keep hearing people say Elements and to me it’s a million fucking miles from Elements. I don’t hear any Elements on it. I mean, if other people do that’s cool but Elements was written so quickly and so differently than Jupiter that it’s kind of the ‘red-headed step-child’ of our family. I love the record, I love it. It’s just not a Steve Flynn/Kelly Shaefer kind of record. It’s a Tony Choy/Kelly Shaefer kind of record, and the other guys that were involved in that played so differently than Steve and myself when we get together. I guess the only elements of Elements that are on there are the guitar riffs and stuff that I wrote for that album. Maybe people might hear those, because I wrote a lot of guitar riffs on Jupiter so perhaps people are hearing that. It’s really kind of picking up from Unquestionable in my opinion. It’s probably more relentless than any record we’ve had. I mean, it’s top-to-bottom, it’s thirty-four minutes of non-stop. We didn’t seek dynamics, we didn’t seek anything – we just sought to write really heavy…
TM: Yeah, I think more so I meant chronologically that it seems like it could have come out around the same time frame, but I definitely do think that it’s more towards your earlier records, as well.
KS: Yeah, more in the spirit of speed and aggression and anger as opposed to finesse.
TM: Maybe lyrically there’s a bit more similarities to Elements, maybe. I’m not – I haven’t really dug too deep into them, but…
KS: Yeah, you’re right. I can see that and I didn’t even think about that. That’s probably the case. I mean, it seems that way because Elements was so earthy and lots of topics about nature and stuff like that. The lyrics on this album – did they send you the lyrics?
TM: Yeah, I have the lyric sheet. There’s a lot of – I don’t want to say ‘spirituality’, but there’s a lot of things about the sun and the moon and just the natural cycle of things.
KS: Yeah, the whole Jupiter and my whole philosophy around Jupiter was just the parallels between its relationship with the sun and our relationship with the sun, and really having the feeling that I really don’t have anybody else to answer to but the sun. And Jupiter being such a mysterious, dark, weird planet – much like this band – it was the perfect title for the album.
TM: Were you able to do a lot of stuff on guitar on the album, because I know that you can’t really play it live anymore. Did you just write or did you get to play?
KS: I did one solo on “Faux King Christ.” Me and Jason Suecof did the solos on that song and we traded off just for fun, you know. Suecof’s a great fucking guitar player and bass player, so I had him do a couple solos on the album because I love his style. He did the solo in the middle of “Fictitious Glide” – the breakdown, the second song – where there’s a bass and drum breakdown, he does that solo there. So he’s a shredder. So, I just did that. I’ve played on every record thus far, but I just didn’t feel like it was necessary this time around. I wrote a good portion, probably 65% of the guitar stuff, but I just let the guys play it and be done with it. There’s no point in having three guitars on there.
TM: Is it different playing live now that you’ve just got a microphone? Is that hard to get used to?
KS: I love it. I’ve been doing it since 93’ so I’m really comfortable with that. I love being freed up and able to run around and have fun and not be so stuck at a mic stand… (Child’s voice in the background)… and it makes for a better live show. Hang on one second, my little daughter is being a pain in the butt here, one second.
KS: I’m sorry man.
TM: No worries. You’ve got to take care of what you got to do.
KS: Where were we?
TM: We were just talking about, just sort of how you’ve – you don’t really…
KS: Oh, play guitar. Not playing the guitar on stage, I think allows the band to have more interaction with the crowd, and that typically doesn’t happen, I don’t think, with complex music. People tend to kind of stare at their shoes and not really connect with the audience. We come off more like a Van Halen show than like your typical complex metal band would. I like that aspect of us – people expect one thing and when they see us live it’s more raucous event and I don’t have to be stuck at a mic stand; a slave to that situation. You know, it was so difficult to play and sing that stuff. Plus this time around I was able to know that I wasn’t going to have to play and sing it so it allowed me to write vocal lines a lot differently. I didn’t have to be concerned with how am I going to play that live, you know. It really was a factor in the old material. I would kind of write with that in mind. So, I was able to be a little more freed up and loose with the vocal lines.
TM: With the guitar on the album, your guitarist also plays bass on there. I know there was a bit of a stink made when you announced that Tony wasn’t coming back, but I understand why you did it. Did Roger Patterson’s influence – you mentioned that briefly – did that help Jonathan with the bass? Is that sort of where his style comes from?
KS: He’s cut from the cloth of growing up on Cynic and Atheist and all this kind of music. So, he was really like a great, sort of refreshing indicator of today and today’s view points and thoughts – which is cool. His style, he writes really complex sort of riffs. He’s not necessarily – he’s much like Roger where he’s not a songwriter per se, but he writes really complicated things that allow me to do the same thing that I used to do to Roger’s riffs, which is to orchestrate around it. So, his guitar playing was really fun to write with him and he brought a lot of that spirit and flavor that Roger had, and as a bass player he approaches it the same way. He doesn’t have the attack – I’ve never met anybody that had the attack that Roger Patterson had, not Tony Choy, not anybody. He was just a pounder and his fingers were flying and it was effortless for him. Jonathan’s style has a little more combination of Tony and Roger, really – finesse with complexity. I mean, he had three fuckin’ weeks to write the bass lines for the album, so…
TM: Well, you’d never know it.
KS: … So, you might understand why we were upset about what Tony did. Some day the whole story will come out and I think people will understand that we had every reason to be upset. This shit happened to us twenty years ago and for it to happen again was really uncool, especially with only twenty-one days to go before rolling tape in the studio with no bass lines written. He wanted us to send the music down to Miami so he could just do it on his own, and we needed to be there. You know, we’re not just going to hand our music over to somebody. We didn’t want a hired gun, we wanted a bass player that was going to write the album with us. If we wanted a hired gun we could go get fuckin’ anybody. I mean, you know, we could. We could have brought anybody in here to play bass on it. It was supposed to be a family experience and he ended up getting really busy with his pop music and Latin pop and that’s what he did. He was off touring with that and suddenly he found himself out of time to really kind of do a good job so he bowed out. We tried to put out a press release to say, you know, to try to be politically correct about it and not have it be a bash fest and it just kind of blew up in our face and made us look like assholes. It’s like, why are we the assholes, you know? He’s the one that agreed to do it, and was paid to do so and then didn’t.
You know what, let’s back up a minute. I really don’t want to talk about that. You know what I mean, it’s just bad vibes and between us and Tony, we’re all still friends. I think Tony said what he said and he feels bad about the way his press release came out because he said that he just wasn’t feeling the music and that’s not true; he knows that’s not true. I know it’s not true that we shouldn’t feel bad about the way it went down, you know what I mean. I don’t like the way the press releases came out. I think people got the wrong idea on both sides. So, just let it be known, seriously, we’re brothers and we’ve known each other for so long and we’ve been through so much that there’s no point in us all being negative about it. The albums done, we’re happy with it. Tony is doing his thing and if he wants to come back and do some touring that would be great. If not, that’s fine too. We’ll move on like we always have as a band, you know. We made it through the death of our best friend; we can make it through this.
TM: I understand completely why you wouldn’t – you don’t want to risk that sort of… coming back up.
KS: What’s that?
TM: I understand why you would want to change the subject.
KS: I mean, because here’s what happens in the internet age. If you print that then it just becomes a bash fest, and it’s like man I don’t want to fuckin’ hear it. I just want to keep it positive. We’ve been through enough shit as a band that I don’t need a bunch of twenty-two year old people speculating on what they think happened. It’s like they don’t know what happened, alright. On this album, I mean, the truth of the matter is he ran out of time and wasn’t able to do it. Whose fault is it? I mean, I don’t know; it was his choice. That’s not really a fault, he chose to spend more time with his Latin pop band then he did with Atheist and we ran out of time and we needed to get in the studio.
The positive part of this story is that Jonathan was able to step up – this twenty-five year old kid – play guitar and bass on the new fucking Atheist album. I think that’s a huge deal and he deserves all the credit in the world and I’d rather talk about him. You know how are that would fucking be for anybody with twenty-one days and being thrown to the wolves like that – “here you go, write the bass lines for this new Atheist album (laughs).” I mean, he was the perfect choice and it’s a great thing that he does play bass the way he does because he was already fully engulfed in the music and the guitar stuff, so he knew all the twists and turns already. Otherwise, I don’t think it would have happened. It would have been next year before our record came out.
TM: It sounds good. He pulled it off.
KS: I mean you could understand why we were upset. I mean, like all the sudden everything’s great, everything’s great and then three weeks it’s like, “ok we need you to come up so we can work on all these bass lines” – “Oh I’m sorry. Just send me the music and I’ll just lay the bass line down and send them back.” Fuck that, you know. We’re not going to do that.
TM: I mean, you’re on good terms with him. That’s all people need to know. It wasn’t a big falling out.
KS: Absolutely, because we talk all the time and he’s doing his thing and we’re doing ours and it’s cool.
TM: You mentioned touring. Do you guys have any plans to go on any big tours or are you just going to try to stick to the festival circuit for now?
KS: Well, it’s hard for us. We’re not going to do any seven-week tours, so the things that we do, we’ll probably do two weeks at a time on whatever tour we decide to go out on – for now, anyway. We all have families and it’s difficult. We’ll see how things go. I mean, we’re definitely going to do a lot of stuff in Europe. The American touring is set up a little differently because there aren’t as many festivals here, but we’re going to try to do two-weeks here, two-weeks there. So, I highly recommend that if people see we’re coming through – we’re not going to be able to come through four or five times a year like a lot of bands do, so we might come through once or twice. So, I highly recommend people get the fuck up and come out to the show.
TM: Yeah, I mean, you’ve done the grind already, right?
KS: We have and we know better and we know that after three weeks of touring we fuckin’ can’t stand each other and I don’t care how much you like each other. As twenty-year old men living on a bus –seven, eight, nine people – it gets difficult after three weeks. As forty-year old men it’s fucking nearly impossible. So, I mean, you get set in your ways as you get older and you don’t really want eight men surrounding you all the time on a bus. (laughs). You know, it’s like, fuckin’ let me get out of here. So, the shows start to suffer and the performances start to suffer and you start missing home and – I love my band. I love all the guys in my band. We spend a great deal of time together on airplanes and touring around the world and we love it, but everything has its limitations. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about touring over the twenty years that we’ve been doing this, it’s that it runs its course after three weeks. So, it’s better to go home and recharge your batteries and come back out with the same enthusiasm that you started the tour with. As long as you’re a well-rehearsed band, then that should be no problem as far as pulling off the music.
TM: So, the enthusiasm is back, though. You’re really – you’re back into it full-swing now? It’s…
KS: Oh yeah, and they rehearse in Atlanta four days a week. For me, it’s like you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could jump on stage and remember the songs from all my bands. Somehow – I can’t remember movie dialogue and stuff like that, but I’ve got so many lyrics in my head that all I have to do is hear the music and it just triggers the lyrics somehow. I’m lucky that way, so I don’t really have to do a lot of rehearsing. So I can kind of just jump up and roll. The band, obviously, needs to – you know, they’ve got to work on things. They’re all in Atlanta, Georgia and I’m in Florida; so I just fly up there for a couple days before we tour and brush off the rust, and off we go.
TM: Just one last question. Does it feel almost like – not the ‘odd man out’ – but you’re the only guy in the band that also isn’t a part of Gnostic, as well. Is it sort of hard to separate that or is there a close enough bond that it doesn’t really affect anything.
KS: It doesn’t affect me in any way. Gnostic was a great situation for Steve to kind of get his chops back up. He stopped playing for fourteen years. He didn’t play any drums at all. So, when people listen to this performance on this album – after they get finished picking their fuckin’ jaw up off the floor (laughs) – they can remember that this guy took fourteen years off from playing drums and he came back with a performance like that. It’s like Deion Sanders jumping out from behind the football booth and running out and playing with the cowboys this year. You wouldn’t expect his performance to be like that. So, I was really shocked at what a great job he did. But, no, the Gnostic thing – we toured together, actually. We took them out and so Steve was doing two sets a night. He was playing Gnostic and The Faceless would play and then Atheist would play. So, that was crazy shit. I can’t even believe he was doing that, especially at forty. So there’s really no – we’re all friends, we’re all cut from the same cloth. It’s all really positive. There’s just never been a better time for us. We’ve never had more fun writing and recording and touring together. We just have such a different appreciation for it now than we had when we were kids. We just value it and appreciate it so much more. So, we hope that we can keep it going and continue. Keeping it fun is the most important thing.
TM: Good. Well, the record – it shows through on the record. It sounds like a really natural sort of…
KS: You like it?
TM: Yeah, I like it a lot. It just sounds like an Atheist record, which I think is a lot harder than people think it is, to make it sound like that after such a long break.
KS: Do you know what’s funny. It’s that some of the people that aren’t really familiar with our band and they just got familiar with it maybe a year ago are like, “Well, you know, compared to all the new bands that are all doing things so differently, this really just sounds like you guys played it safe and just rolled with the logical conclusion.” I mean, not everybody said it, but there’s been a couple of reviews that say that and I think, “Who the fuck are you to say some dumb shit like that?” What are we supposed to do? Do you want us to go out and listen to everybody’s – you know, go buy all the new bands’ albums and sit around and listen to decide what kind of music we’re going to write. It’s ridiculous. We’ve never been a part of that train of thought. We’ve always done things the way we do things. You would think that there were so many people concerned with us not losing what makes Atheist special, and so then we come out with a record that is a natural progression from our last record and now people are bitching (laughs). Well it just sounds like – not bitching, but some people are (child’s voice in the background). Hold on one second.
KS: She’s just pushing me (laughs)…
TM: That’s what little kids are for, right?
KS: … she wants me to get her play-doh out. Um, but I think what else could it be? Me and Steve haven’t written music together in a long time and so for us to get back together was just kind of rekindling an old flame, you know.
TM: Sort of a can’t-win situation in some regards. They either want you to come back or…
KS: You know, having that tool is like – him as a player, as a drummer was just – for me to be able to write riffs and have him do what he does to my riffs it was kind of shocking for us, it was very third-person for us. We were like “Whoa. Shit, that sounds exactly like Atheist.” We really don’t think about it much more than that. I mean, we don’t look around or listen around, we just kind of get in a room and do what we do and hope for the best. We don’t think about how long the songs are or how many songs we’re going to need, necessarily, we just get it done until it feels like it’s done and then we leave it be.
TM: Alright, awesome. Well, good luck with the release. It’s coming up, right?
KS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it and sorry about the confusion on the phone call.
TM: That’s ok, it happens. It’s long-distance.
KS: So, keep in contact. Listen, I think we’re going to be up to Canada before we go anywhere, so keep this phone number and give me a call and come out to the show as our guest.
TM: Alright, awesome.
KS: Thank you so much, man.
TM: No problem, thanks for your time.
Jupiter, Atheist’s first release in 17 years, is out tomorrow. Be sure to read our review for the album here, and remember to buy it if you like it. Thanks go to Kelly Shaefer for being a great interview and to Trey for the help transcribing.