Atheist interview (07/2007)
|With:||Kelly Shaefer & Tony Choy|
|Conducted by:||Marcel Hubregtse (in person)|
One of the main reasons for me to attend Hellfest was to finally get a chance to see Atheist live.
Sunday June 24 has arrived. And finally, after first having bumped into the Atheist guys early on in the afternoon and talked a little with them and then having had the interview moved backwards from 3 pm to 6.30 pm and their liaison guy wanting to cancel the interview at 6.15 pm I finally get a chance to talk to Kelly Shaefer and Tony Choy. Darkside Momo was present as well and also recorded the interview. So about 30 minutes after Atheist's last ever show in Europe we find a quite spot backstage and we start with Kelly doing most of the answering and Tony nodding in agreement most of the time.
What was the reason behind the Relapse reissues?
Kelly: We spent a lot of time away from each other after we broke up in 93. When I went out on Ozzfest with Neurotica in America in 2002 I started recognizing that a lot of people still remembered the band and I was surprised and I started looking around on-line and realizing people were paying 150 American dollars for fucking used cd's. So that's what really started it. We always wanted people to remember our music but we never wanted them to have to pay 150 American dollars for our music. So I kind of threw a hook in the water just to see if anybody would be interested in putting the records back out. We received some great offers and Relapse finally came through and the guys at Relapse were big fans of the band and we knew that they would do a good job and it just unfolded beautifully. Great, and I called Tony, and Tony had been busy in Miami doing a lot of different stuff, a lot of jazz stuff, producing, working in the studio… I pulled him up out of the studio and saddled him up and said "Let's go do this shit".
We hadn't seen each other in ten years. Yeah, that's a long time.
On to last year's reunion tour, what made you guys decide on doing that? Plus, I thought that it would only be for 2006 and all of a sudden you also pop up this year. I thought it would be a one-off occasion.
Kelly: Once we'd put the records back out we thought: Well, maybe we can play a few shows. Maybe somebody would care. It just started unfolding and the offers just started coming in and we were like: Wow. Alright we can put this together but we all have families and kids and different lives now, so it's difficult for us to come over and tour like warriors, for three months in a row. We thought if we could play festivals then we could touch as many people as possible that way, and they just kept coming. So this is almost a year to the day, July 7th was the first show and we're at the end of June. So, one solid year to play as much as possible.
Marcel: So it's not two years?
Kelly: No, just one year, just one.
Marcel: I was wondering because I thought it was just for the summer season of 2006 and then all of a sudden you popped up on the bills again this year.
Kelly: We wanted to do Hellfest last year. It's just that we didn't get on in time. We didn't decide that we were gonna play in time.
Marcel: Okay, so you did the reunion, then you got Tony in, of course he was the one in after Roger died unfortunately.
Kelly: He was the only other guy that could do it.
Marcel: I heard Rand Burkey would be coming along as well. But didn't because of some legal troubles? What were those legal troubles? Or can't you talk about it?
Kelly: I can talk about it. That son of a bitch. Hahaha. I can stick it right in his ass right now, but I won't. Yeah, he had some legal troubles, man. Rand is a brilliant, fucking, one of a kind guitar player who found himself in... Socially he had a tough time, he's always had a tough time. He's a unique person, unique musician. When we decided to do this he was in. He was great. Then he got himself in some legal trouble in America which would have prevented him from getting across borders over here.
Tony: Which would have made it very difficult for us to actually enjoy this whole trip. This whole journey.
Kelly: Every border would have been… ohoh. They can decide he's somebody they don't want in their country and we would be stuck. So… We took a chance and pulled in these new guys from Steve Flynn's new band Gnostic, and worked hard. It was tough and we had very little time. We lived very far away from each other, so we had to fly in to rehearsals and managed to get three weekends worth of rehearsals. And that's all we had really to get going.
I know you quit playing guitar because of some sort of injury, but how did you get the injury?
Kelly: From playing this technical fucking music. From singing and playing and it gave me Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I can still play guitar I still play every day but I can't play demanding on-stage stuff like I used to because my hand just falls asleep. It just stops. I can't grip. I can't make a chord after a while unless I am completely relaxed. So I can play in the studio. I can play like that. But on stage, that kind of intensity, I just couldn't do it.
Marcel: And there's also no therapy for that?
Kelly: Well, there is an operation, but it's not guaranteed to to work out for me and the demands that I need for guitar. You can get a grip but not a full grip again. And I need a full grip to be able to cover all that shit. I would never want the music to sacrifice as a result so it just made more sense to just do vocals. Plus, a lot of death metal don't have a front man and somebody out there to lead the party, so to speak. So it adds a different twist to our music, which I don't think a lot of people expect. When they come to see us I think they expect us to be like very serious. But nobody's having more fun than us.
Go back a bit in time… what was the reason for the 1993 split-up? Because you did Elements within one and a half month, really quick and that was that
Kelly: Yeah, it was tough. I mean, we did that record and we did it in forty days, wrote it, recorded it, and we're proud of it. And we went out on that tour with Benediction and it was just... it wasn't time for us. People weren't understanding what we were doing and we weren't getting…
Marcel: You got great reviews by the press though.
Kelly: That's because you guys are very smart. Some of the kids weren't ready for that yet. They were just like: Whoa. And it was just going over a lot of people's heads. And that was frustrating for us, on top of the fact that after so many years and so many things happening, with Roger, putting out these records that we worked so hard on and people just kinda like not getting it. It was just tough. We lost Flynn, he went to college. I was just sort of left by myself to fulfill, initially what was a contract. But I mean, we really wanted to do that contract. And looking back on it it was a magic time, wasn't it? I mean we got together in an apartment with nothing... we had nothing. We went to Gainesville, Florida, smoked a bunch of pot and wrote that record in a very short time. That drummer that played on that record, Josh Greenbaum, he deserves a lot of credit. He had two weeks to write and record that shit with us.
Tony And we gave... We scolded that guy, we gave him a hard, hard time.
Kelly: He was at metal bootcamp.
Tony: Now we look back and we're like: Wow, this kid did an amazing job. So, like Kelly always says: Josh wherever you are, man…
Kelly: We love you man. You did a great job on that record. We never saw him again after we recorded that record.
Marcel: You don't know what he's doing, either?
Kelly: No, and if you're out there please get in contact with us because we love you, man. You did a great job, you're a part of history. And he deserves a lot of credit.
When you guys started out in the eighties did you ever expect to have this much of an impact with your technical death metal? Just like contemporaries Death, later era Pestilence?
Kelly: Easy now, easy now… hahaha
Marce:l Not Pestilence's first two albums…
Kelly: Pestilence wasn't technical until later. Really, I have a lot of respect for Chuck Schuldiner, the godfather of death metal.
Marcel: And Cynic as well, of course.
Kelly: The Cynic guys were always brilliant, we just sort of got our record out before they had an opportunity to. We knew these guys in Miami when they had Cynic, we were sister bands, you know.
Tony: It's a misconception because a lot of people say: Well, the Cynic guys. I was one of the Cynic guys. In a sense everybody kind of doesn't remember me because of the Focus transition. That I wasn't on Focus. Everybody knows me as a player, an Atheist guy. Originally though…
Kelly: A real Cynic. And I am trying to secure the rights to put that demo out. The demos that they did together, which were fucking unbelievable. And a lot of people haven't heard them. The Focus album is brilliant but the demos are a bit rawer. That's the real Cynic.
Tony That to me is the real Cynic. The Cynic that was technical, jazzy but yet death metal still. That metal. Then they went a little bit more of to fusion and they kinda lost…
Kelly: When Steve was gonna quit the band I went to see them play in Fort Lauderdale or something like that and I was fucking blown away because at the time we were the only band that we 'd ever seen doing jazz fusion metal and mixing those genres together. And when I saw them and their energy and their love for jazz, they were really really into jazz and so we became fast friends. So when Roger died it was, there were very few people that were gonna be able to pull that material off. We already had that album (Unquestionable Presence) written and ready to go with the exception of two songs. And Tony came in and wrote the brilliant piece at the end of Mother Man and parts of And The Psychic Saw, and that was it. There's a lot of, the timeline of technical metal is a little misconstrued by people and a lot o f people think, people still ask me: Were you influenced by Pestilence? And that makes me angry because at the time…
Marcel: They switched later on.
Kelly: Absolutely. Originally when we did Unquestionable Presence Patrick Mameli (guitarist of Pestilence) came in and realized: Wow… He more or less fired the bass-player on the spot, hired Tony to do that record (Testimony of the Ancients) and from that point on he wisened up and started playing brilliant music. So props to him for continuing that with C-187. And Tony played on that record and it's coming out real soon.
Tony: In August. We're coming back to Europe in October. Sean Reinert (Cynic) on drums, Patrick Mameli on guitar, Tony Choy on bass, and Tony Jelenkovich (B-Thong, Transport League, Mnemic) on vocals and it's just gonna be… He's from a couple of bands, a band called M.A.N., Swedish band. I forget the other bands. I just met the guy while we were recording in Germany. But he's a really good singer.
Marcel: Talking about C-187 now, this is just a little side-track. I heard that some other Dutch guy also played along with you guys for some time. He apparently plays in Exivious, which is a Dutch band that is totally Cynic influenced.
Tony: Ah yes, Patrick told me something about that guy for the tour. But nothing to do with the recording. The only people that recorded the album was me on bass, Sean Reinert on drums, Patrick Mameli on guitar and Tony Jelenkovich on vocals. Now that I hear the album I really don't think that we need that other guitar player.
Atheist with Roger Patterson
You were of course one of the first, if not the first, technical fusion jazz death metal band. But where did you get your influences from? It couldn't have been from other death metal bands.
Kelly No, no, no, not at all. Really, bands like Rush, we were huge Maiden fans as well. You know from a professional point of view when Roger was still alive he was very into Steve Harris. Steve Harris is really one of the first guys that showcased the bass, other than Geddy Lee, in a popular fashion. They were the first two guys really for us that were like that. They made the bass count.
Tony: I agree, agree.
Kelly We got a chance to see Steve Harris yesterday.
Tony He was sitting right next to me at Graspop, I was like: Whoaaa.
Kelly Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, we also got into Mahavishnu Orchestra. And stuff like that. And these guys were into…
Tony Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth…
Kelly The list goes on and on. We just love stuff that is well-played and we also love Slayer and Metallica, our roots were there when we were young. Me and Steve went to school together in junior high. So when we first got together we played Metallica covers and Slayer, Trouble and Exodus.
Marcel Trouble? That's totally different.
Kelly I love Trouble. I have a new band called Unheard and it's sort if in that vein of just a slower grindy Sabbathy kind of vibe where I am just playing guitar.
When we started writing, the first songs that we wrote I Deny and Piece of Time, at the end of our demo-run a guy named Borivoj Krgin, who does Blabbermouth.net, was really impressed. He really deserves a lot of credit for Atheist because he was one of the few guys, him and Monte Connor (RoadRunner A&R manager). Monte was just at the time a young guy doing a radio show in New York called The Witching Hour. Him and Borivoj. These two guys really deserve a lot of credit for the music that we are enjoying today because they really went out on a limb for a lot of bands that were very unique. Don Kaye as well, he's another person who deserves a lot of credit for showcasing our music and we sent him our first demo and he hated it, he thought it was terrible. But he heard some great stuff in it and said: If you do another demo send it to me. So we did the On They Slay demo and he put it on the Raging Death compilation and that's where it all started. And when he got a job at a label called Godly Records he signed us first and we did the Piece Of Time record and then they licensed us to Music For Nations (Kelly puts on a totally disgusted face when mentioning MFN). That's when the ball started rolling. So we owe everything to those guys .
Marcel: And then Music For Nations fucks you over?
Kelly: Well, we never saw a dime from those guys. So... Dave Constable I hope you feel good about yourself, motherfucker, because we get the last laugh on the whole thing. It's not good to do that shit to bands. That guy fucking stuck it in our ass. But we're sticking it right back in his right now and I don't mind saying it. So, Dave Constable… fuck yourself.
This was not your last gig ever but you got one final one coming up in New York…
Kelly: Hellfest was the last one in Europe. So only one more in New York to film for the live album. And then that's it.
On the internet rumours abound that you guys are gonna go record again …
Tony: Maybe, maybe, maybe…
Kelly: No, no, no. No, stop that shit now.
Marcel: Kelly, like you said in the liner notes on the re-release of Unquestionable Presence: I believe that tension is what caused us to write this kind of music…
Kelly: Well, I think it would be hard to recreate that tension and the amount of time that it took for us to write. We used to play six nights a week and used to have a hundred people in front of us. Our friends would come to our rehearsal spot. And we would just be like… and that's how we wrote. It was sweltering hot, like a hundred degrees, in our warehouse every night where we would practice. The reason why I brought up Borivoj was when we started writing technical songs and we sent it to Borivoj he was like: Wow, that's really really different. So then we almost started writing just to try to outdo each song. Not knowing ever that we would be here 20 years later. We always loved Rush, Neil Peart and people like that. We just really wanted to kind of just pay tribute in the metal world and a lot of bands I think couldn't play intricate I think very well. Everybody was very basic, very simple, and the drummers were like: rrrrrr and we thought it needs finesse, it needs something else in order for metal to continue for twenty years. I always believe that it's important for everybody to really learn how to play otherwise this kind of music is just gonna fade away into obscurity and I am so glad that bands like Meshuggah and all these guys have come on and really just broadened the horizons of metal. And now it's fucking wide open now.
Marcel: Back to the rumours, do you think those rumours are due to illegal downloading nowadays, that people don't buy the originals and in your case the re-issues, don't read the liner notes…
Kelly: Do I think those rumours come as a result of that? That's probably a possibility. I mean the introduction of the internet has really changed music. In the way that people buy and listen to music. In some ways it's made Atheist a household name in the metal world. We never made this music for money. We always knew it was going to be obscure. Of course we wanted to be able to take care of our families, but we also knew that it was going to be very obscure because we broke all the rules of pop music. This was not popular stuff to have fourteen riffs in a song. But, yeah, I am sure that people who illegally download... I hope they sleep well at night. Because they are literally..., the problem is that Metallica was the face of this downloading problem and people, fans, need to understand that when you look at Metallica, it's not Metallica that you're hurting, because those guys could stop making music right now and live happily ever after with millions of dollars. But you're taking money out of families of metal that are really working hard. And you guys know (looks at Momo and me) that it's very tough out here and the shows are hit and miss and it's very difficult to take care of your family this way. And when you're stealing music, you're stealing music. You should always buy the records and support them And the bands in turn should offer free songs as well. Because it's a give and take. It's important for the bands to remember that because there's no product involved with the download. If you have a song that you can offer to the kids for free then do it. Give it to them and let them give it back by buying the records as well that you did record and you did intend to sell. It's a give and take.
Marcel: Okay, so this like the tapetrading of yore, right? But at the time you really had to do something to get something. You had to write to a band…
Kelly: Yes, those days are missed. Those were brilliant days. The only way you could find your metal back then was to go: Hey I'll tape you this if you tape me that. And those were beautiful days.
Marcel: Read the demo reviews in the magazines and then write to the band and send them money.
Kelly: Yeah, and that was really really hard. But, that said, I think that it's important that that give and take relationship continues on and to sort of carry on the spirit of underground metal.
To wrap it up I want you to comment on each and every album cover in relation to the contents on the album. So let's start with Piece Of Time…
Piece Of Time
Kelly: Piece Of Time, the title actually came from Rand, it came as a result of our belief in each lifetime. You know, we have… maybe not everybody, but my belief in reincarnation was very much so that my soul lives in this shell for this period of time in this piece of time right now and then I will continue on in many other pieces of time. And so that title came as a result of that. The cover was done by Ed Repka, a brilliant artist, Megadeth, many many others. He did an amazing job on it…
Marcel: That's a funny thing you say, because I read an interview with Ed Repka in Terrorizer magazine a couple of months ago where he was commenting on his own artwork. And he said that Piece Of Time is his least favourite cover artwork ever. He said it was simple and he didn't really like it.
Kelly: I am sure there's a few, tens of thousands of kids, that disagree with him. So, Ed, you did a great job on it. I am sorry it's your least favourite. But it's a piece of history now. It's typical of an artist to feel that way. And I understand because I paint as well.
Marcel: Of course it is not your typical Repka style if you compare it with what he did for Megadeth, Nuclear Assault, Municipal Waste…
Kelly: I am glad it is unique. I am glad it is different, I am sorry Ed feels that way. But I think we, and all the kids, love Piece Of Time. And we love that cover.
Marcel: Does the cover also relate to the music on the album?
Kelly: Not really. I would love to tell you there was some deep thoughtful concept behind it but really it was just the hourglass and the clock dripping into the Stonehenge. That was definitely our idea but Ed took it from there and did a great job. I'd love to have that painting, Ed. Since you don't like it I would love it. That painting from you, I'd love that original painting. I'm serious, you know, write to our website please, Ed. I'd love to have it.
Marcel: In my opinion this is a cover that you totally would not expect from any metal band.
Kelly: My least favourite. My least favourite of all of our covers.
Marcel:Who did the artwork on this one?
Kelly: His name was Justice Mitchell. We were pressed for time.. and once again I'd love to tell a great great grand story about how… Because this record has gone down in history it'd be nice if the cover… But really we had about a week and Justice Mitchell went to art school in Florida, which is where I live in Sarasota. His father was an instructor there. And it was just a play on vision really to have someone praying, which is the oxymoron of the name of the band; Atheist. And once again that was it, that's all the input we really gave him. We just wanted a girl on a hill sort of praying but we wanted the planets behind her. So it's pretty simplistic in the way it worked out. We had a little different vision of how it would turn out but at the end it's classic in its own right.
Marcel: So also totally no relation to the music?
Kelly: No. Not really.
Of course you got Elements here.
Kelly: Now this cover… wow.
Marcel: Done by?
Kelly: You know what? I really cannot remember his name. But he was from Sweden and I am so sorry, brother. I talked to him on the phone. And obviously the fire, the air, the water… the elements are there. But I mean, I talked to him, he was Swedish, could barely speak English. And I sort of made clear to him everything that we wanted to have on the globe. And he fucking…
Tony: He nailed it.
Kelly: Oh my God, you know?
Tony: He fucking nailed it.
Kelly: Now that is an amazing colourful cover. Some people might not like the colourfulness of it, but we think it is brilliant.
Tony: Now, this has to do everything with the fucking music that's in there.
Kelly: Air, fire, water, yeah that's very conceptual. The whole record. I'd love to shout his name out. But I don't know it. I think it's not on the album because I couldn't remember. But, if you're out there, write us a letter and I'll make sure you'll get proper credits in the future. I think it was Stephan or something, he's from Sweden and he came as a result of a friend who said: Yeah this guy would be great. So I talked to him on the phone for about fifteen minutes. He could barely understand me, but he definitely nailed it.
Anything you want to add?
Kelly: Thank you. Thank you, merci. All the thank yous from all around the world, we have had an amazing time.
Tony: Thank you to all the fans for opening up their minds and just allowing us to give a little piece of what we have to offer in the music business to everybody. And just keep an open mind always to music and to everything around you.
Kelly: Be sure to allow all metal music to expand. Don't be angry at bands for experimenting because experimentation… it's about growth, it's about growth and expanding the horizons of metal. Just don't lose the metal in it, that's all. Don't get too many keyboards, don't get too far away from the core of what made this genre what it is today, twenty years later. Thanks everybody, every single person that ever bought a record and came to our shows. We are absolutely one hundred per cent the most grateful band on the planet for everything that we had. And we mean that.
More thanks yous from Kelly and Tony are forwarded to me and Momo. Tony even starts speaking a little Dutch which I am totally baffled by for I wasn't expecting that. Tony, hope to see you on tour with C-187 soon and we'll speak a bit more of Dutch then.
And to everyone who is and ever was in Atheist, thank you for all the beautiful groundbeaking music you guys produced. A truly unique and great band has vanished to be.
Thanks are due to everyone who made this interview possible, and especially to DarksideMomo for letting me use his recording of the interview which was of a better sound quality than mine, less background noises were present on his. So no blurred Kreator on the mainstage in the background.
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