Interview conducted by Devin Braden. Published on 10/26/2010.
When the metal world caught wind of an Atheist reunion, fans of the band's manic, original sound flooded message boards with eager statements about their desire to see the revived Technical Metalers, whose influences had since spawned an entire subgenre. After a few well-publicized (and well-reviewed) live shows, the response became so fervent that the band decided to attempt writing and recording some new material.
Four years later, the band is standing on the verge of releasing the much-anticipated Jupiter -- the first new Atheist material to appear in 17 years. From the first note of the record, it is clear that they have made no compromises in their desire to revive their legacy. Jupiter is a testament to the unique spirit of this innovative band that will surely appease fans and newcomers alike.
Vocalist/guitarist Kelly Shaefer was gracious enough to answer a few questions by e-mail about the writing and recording process, the themes his lyrics present, the artwork, and a few of his thoughts on the current state of the Technical Metal scene. His excitement is apparent and he clearly has big plans for the future, so fans of the band can rejoice -- Atheist are back!
It is really exciting to have new Atheist material after 17 years! The first inkling that this album was going to happen came a couple of years after the 2006 reunion shows. Could you explain the process the band went through when deciding to write and record new material? Was there any particular event that led to this decision, or was it more of a natural process that went hand-in-hand with reuniting to play live?
A little of both actually. We started with the intentions of just doing some shows, but we had no idea that the reception would be so overwhelming. We had a great time, but were always cautious about the idea of sort of soiling our legacy as a band by doing a new record after such a significant amount of time away.
We also do not live in the same town any more either, so logistics were an issue when thinking of doing another, but first and foremost we needed to know what would happen if we got in a room together and wrote again, and that is when it clicked, as soon as we heard the first bit of music off our fingers and toes, it was like... OK this is going to be amazing. It was as if we had not ever stopped, we just suspended animation of our process and fired it back up on Jupiter ... fucking amazing!
Regarding the new album, one trait that immediately sticks out is the running time. Did you consciously try to keep the album around the half-hour or did that just come naturally?
That's just kind of the way it came out naturally. We have never been the kind of band that writes "extra" shit, it's hard enough to pull all of the chaos we have together in a stream, so every single riff is very important in structural integrity of any Atheist tune. I am sure we could have been musically long-winded with a bunch of "filler" riffs, and extra indulgent solos and got an extra 6-8 minutes in length on the album, but we streamline, and decisively get in, and out and on to the next musical voyage.
Aside from a few rhythmic elements (most notably in "Faux King Christ"), this album tones down some of the more prominent latin and fusion influences that were present on Elements. Did you feel it was important to return to the harder-edged metallic elements that defined Piece of Time and Unquestionable Presence with this album? Do you feel it's more characteristic of the "Atheist sound"?
Again, it was not a conscious decision, we don't do anything with a preconceived notion, but the reason Elements had that sound was due to Tony Choy's input to the rhythm section of that album. The last album I did with my co- founding Drummer Steve Flynn was Unquestionable Presence, so for me this is a continuation of the spirit of the technicality as well as the brutality that we all loved so much back when we started. We have always loved complicated brutality, and riffs that make our hair stand up, that's what we look for in a riff.
One of the most remarkable things about Jupiter is that it is immediately identifiable as Atheist. You have mentioned on several occasions that you have a formula for writing unique songs -- were you at all tempted to incorporate any modern trends? Do you feel you are making a statement by avoiding them?
Thank you that's great to hear ... and allow me to say I would not know what a modern trend is if it was put before me ... and we most definitely would never try to make a statement of any kind by avoiding anything. We simply write what we know we enjoy, and we hope that everyone else will like our taste in metal, you know? I would love to give you a story of how we carefully calculated a way to create a template, but we just have a chemistry myself and Flynn have had since we were kids, and it now translates differently because we have evolved as musicians, I suppose. But we also have an ear for what Atheist should sound like of course, so with the new guys input we were able to say, yes that's an atheist riff, and no way that belongs in some other bands tune.
What was the songwriting process like for this record? Did Rand Burkey or Tony Choy contribute to the writing process, or was it primarily written by the recording personnel?
Rand has been gone for many years now, and Tony was to write this record with us, but did not. Me and Flynn wrote a wealth of stuff and Jonathan and Chris wrote as well with Jonathan's contributions most specifically to "Fraudulent Cloth," "Third Person," and "Live and Live Again," and Chris Baker in "When the Beast" and scattered amongst several other tunes as well, textures and layers . Me and Flynn wrote songs like "Second to Sun," "Fictitious Glide," "Faux King Christ," but we all had riffs throughout the record. Everyone worked very hard and I could not be happier about the performances.
Some fans were caught a little off-guard by the very public dismissal of Tony Choy. Was there a particular reason the band chose to publicly announce his lack of contribution to this album? Is there any bad blood between you as a result?
We are all like brothers and so brothers sometimes do not agree, and this is the case with Tony's departure. He was very busy with Area 305, a Latin "pop" group, and when we would try to schedule writing sessions in Atlanta Georgia, he could never make it on the weekends etc, so it was killing a lot of the time we had set aside to get this record written... so we had to persevere and make this the best thing we have ever done, and we wanted him to be a part of it, much like we wanted Rand to be a part of it, but that is not what the universe wanted so it did not happen. All we tried to do with our statement about it was to say that there was no danger of our record not having the signature Atheist sound, because that sound comes from myself, Steve Flynn, and of course Roger Patterson who is always with us in the spirit of how we write and challenge ourselves musically.
Some people got bent outta shape about it, but at the end of the day, just like we said in our statement, Tony will likely do some touring with us, and this record is very much Atheist. There is no bad blood whatsoever on our end.
Hiring Jason Suecof to mix the record was an interesting choice, as he is mostly known for his work on modern "high-gloss" recordings, but the recording seems to have maintained the rawness that is characteristic of the rest of the Atheist catalog. Were there certain techniques that allowed you to maintain this sound without sacrificing clarity and definition?
I think it's the way we layer things when writing, each line is very different from the next in terms of instrumentation, and we stack guitars differently than Jason would normally like them to be recorded. He was a fan of Atheist since he was 12 years old, and he had studied our sound to the point where we left him alone to mix the record, that's the first time we took our hand off the wheel, and we knew it would be OK. He has an ear for tones that [are] hard to find in metal, and he just knew that Jupiter needed to rip faces off, and the guitar sound was key in that I think, along with the clarity of all of the intricate drumming. Those were focal points in what we wanted to be different about our past productions. The bass on Elements for instance is SO loud that certain parts of the guitar sections do not pack the same punch as they would have if they had been mixed differently.
Suecof is a "genius" metal mind, as well as one helluva guitar player and bass player. He did several solos on Jupiter including the blazing section in the middle of "Fictitious Glide" ... one of my [favorite] moments on the whole album. He and I do a guitar solo trade off in the middle of "Faux King Christ" as well, which was the first solo I have done on an Atheist record since U.P. in 1991. I played guitar on Elements, but not solos. So the paint brushes we chose on this album to paint our record with did an amazing job, and me and Steve did our best to make sure they painted in the colors of Atheist 2011.
The press release for the album mentions that the lyrics are both controversial and thought-provoking. What are some of the themes that occur in lyrics on this album? Do you find that these were influenced by current events, or do you feel they have always been a part of the band's message?
I'd say both current events and past philosophies revisited in an updated version. I also went through a ton of personal grief in the last 5 years and really had a lot of anger inside of me, and the place I am at in my life is not much different than it was in 1991. The big difference is I am much better equipped to deal with it, and Atheist is a great release of pent up anger, and without it, I don't know where I would be in my life. But the anger was not just displayed, [it] came in the form of questions.
In "Fraudulent Cloth" I want to know WHY the Pope, if he sets foot on American soil, is not arrested on the spot for his facilitation and knowledge of basically a child molestation frenzy that has happened in the Catholic Church for many decades now. Why is [he] held to a different standard than anyone else? He should have to pay just like everyone else for not only hiding evidence of molestation in the church, but actually causing more by allowing those same offenders to move to another congregation. That's the sickest crime there is, a crime against children. What hypocrisy, yet we as a nation are more concerned about fucking Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton ... and our fear of god as a nation has caused blindness to the real criminals of this planet.
"Live and Live Again" is my celebration of Evolution. "Faux King Christ" is an outright exposure and a statement that I felt I wanted to make in an intelligent, articulate manner, but in a blistering presentation. Many different topics on this album [are] all very carefully crafted and worded to make you interpret in many different ways, I think.
What is the inspiration behind the album's title? Do you feel it accurately encompasses the themes of the album?
Well the album opener "Second to Sun" is really the only song that deals with what I feel like is a parallel between Jupiter and the Sun, as well as humans to the Sun. We are both a collection of atoms that depend on the sun for energy and the sustaining of existence ... that's something I can actually wrap my thought around. Jupiter also has many similarities to what I feel like Atheist is ... very vast, and mysterious, very angry, and intentional. When you think of Jupiter, I think a visual of large proportions, and shrouded mystery, and its uniqueness. I feel Atheist is very much that way. It's very hard to pinpoint what kind of band we actually are, much like the surface of Jupiter is not a surface at all... what you see of Jupiter is not actually what it is, its surface is made of molecules and atoms and gasses, yet it's second only to the Sun in size. My personal beliefs plant themselves deeply in the Sun and the Moon, things I can actually see affecting my life, so rather than "god," I worship the sun and all its powers that I can appreciate each and every day of my life. So I answer ONLY to the sun.
Eliran Kantor's artwork seems a bit more subdued and symbolic than the other Atheist album covers. How does his artwork tie into the album's themes?
Symbolic maybe, but subdued? Nah. I sent him the lyrics for "Second to Sun" and "Faux King Christ," and he came back with this incredible piece of art that just blew our fucking minds. Not only that, but to hear the precise explanation of all of the symbolic features of the art is just ... I mean he nailed it. The two lions represent the fighting of religions in the womb of the sun (the mother of all ), and one lion is branded by the astrological sign of Jupiter which just so happened to be in the shape of a "4." We did not know that until Eliran brought it to our attention. It's EASILY my favorite Atheist cover... I can't wait to have Jupiter shirt. And if you get a chance to look through the rest of the art on the disc as well as the vinyl, it's truly staggering. Eliran Kantor is our Dali.
For fans of early technical metal, the last few years have been amazing. Bands like Pestilence, Demilich, Cynic, and Gorguts have either released new material or played highly publicized reunion shows, while bands like Decrepit Birth and Obscura have embraced a sound that owes much to these bands. What do you think has led to the renewed interest in this style of metal?
Well I think people just wanted more musicianship with their metal, and when that happened it just took off, and now people have just gone so far over the top with technicality, getting lost in complete chaos and reckless abandonment of songwriting and structure. The trick we wished to pull from our hat on Jupiter was the ability to confuse you, but pull you in with the structure and melodic technicality. To me it seems this would be the next obvious evolution of a style of music that desperately needed a kick in the pants. We knew we would not be the fastest, the heaviest, or even the most clever, but if we could write insanity and chaos and have memorabilty as well, that would be our new combination that has not been tackled. Jupiter is a catchy, memorable musical acid trip in the middle of a dogfight. The scars of the melodic hooks on this album will remain as you roll through your day after listening to it.
What I do love about the scene of Tech Metal is the diversity and all of the hybrid fusions of styles, there are really no rules, and that's what makes great art in my opinion.
When I interviewed Paul Masvidal from Cynic last month, he mentioned that you had been "like [a] free publicist" for the band in their early days. Do you feel it is important to champion bands that are doing something unique and interesting in the metal world? Are there any bands you have heard lately that you feel are pushing the boundaries of the genre?
Oh, yes... many brilliant new bands that I just love. I think Gojira is brilliant. To be honest I have been so focused on Atheist that I have barely had time to look around and see what's going on, but when we tour we see a lot of really interesting bands. And remember, it's not always about pushing boundaries, sometimes its about how much you can get out of the boundaries that are set already, and many bands do a great job of tweaking and trying different things. Sometimes it's not great, but when it is, it moves metal one step further in its evolution.
With a new album coming out, what does the future look like for Atheist? Any plans for a major tour?
I think the stage is set for the very best years of Atheist yet to come. The response thus far on Jupiter is staggering, and we hope the fans will agree with the writers of metal and we have a world tour agenda in our sights. These are the best days for Atheist, we finally are in a musical landscape that allows us to be us without apologies, and that's refreshingly different from how it was the last time we made a record. These new tunes translate very powerfully in a live setting, and we cannot wait to take it to the world over the next year or so.
We wish to thank all of the bright young minds of metal for reviving our music and flying the flag of Atheist to allow us to make this record. Without you, we would never have been able to do this again. If you like the album, you are REALLY gonna live the live show. We will see you all on tour this year!
Many thanks for the opportunity to gain some insight on the new record. As a huge fan of the entire Atheist catalog, I am glad to see the band's sound has so steadily weathered its 17-year hiatus. Welcome back!
Well thank you for having us back, and for sustaining the life of this band, and our music for the last 20 years. We are humbled! Cheers!