JUPITER‘S RETURN’S RETURN: THE ATHEIST INTERVIEW (PART II)
In the early moments of our conversation, I confirmed with busy Atheist frontman Kelly Shaefer that we would limit our interview time to the industry-standard 15 minutes. Shaefer responded amiably, “As much time as you need, man.” To this, I replied jokingly, “Gosh, how much time have you got?” And though we shared a chuckle at this, neither of us could’ve expected our little phone chat to stretch to 2.5 hours over two days. (Of course, it eventually became clear that nothing less should’ve been expected from two lefty pothead metal guitarists who drink a shitload of Mountain Dew and love talking metal.)
Last week, part one found Shaefer and I delving into big, brainy, conceptual stuff, like his approaches to songwriting and singing, the birth of his genre, and the right-on-time return to awesomeness by his classic band (the new record is called Jupiter, but duh you know that).
Today, MetalSucks unsheathes partie deux, in which the tirelessly gracious, funny, and plainspoken Shaeffer (above, right) indulges my questions about more tangible Atheist business, like record label politics, the importance of good packaging, former Atheist guitarist Rand Burkey, current Atheist guitarist Kelly Shaefer (he and his “guitar still are very best friends”), the squashing of inter-band beefs, America’s shameful marijuana policies (I started it, sorry), and so very, very much more. (Spoiler: We do eventually stop talking on the phone.)
Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how Jupiter came to be. What did you like about the deal with Season of Mist? Were there other offers to release an Atheist album?
Yeah, there were other offers, two of which were from labels that are probably bigger than Season of Mist. But through the years of signing numerous record deals and being in this business, I know that the expectation is not always the outcome. [Season of Mist founder] Michael Berberian has been in contact with me since well before the reissues came out [on Relapse in 2005]. He was very persistent and very much the kind of character in this industry that I love that has a passion for this music. And he’s turned his passion into a business and tries to parlay that passion into helping shape the genre that we all love. I always felt that from him. He was coming after us to do a new record when nobody else was. He deserves a lot of credit for pushing that.
Obviously, the deal he offered was one we could hardly ignore, but the most important thing was that we were going to be able to deliver an album that he — as a fan and a business man — had hoped we’d deliver. He had so much faith in Atheist that he signed us sight unheard and didn’t hear a stitch of music for a year and a half. Imagine you have to write a big, fat check for a house that you’ve never seen a picture of and can’t move into for a year and a half [laughs] … that’s faith. That’s somebody that really believes in this band. You can’t put a price on that. I’m not sure that that would be the case with any other label. So my hat is off to Michael Berberian and Season of Mist. They are visionary in the sense that they let us be us and trusted that we’d make a good record.
In a rock band, you sign with a big label and they assign certain staff to work on it and yadda yadda. There’s no guarantee that the people at that label will be into your band and the music that you create, as opposed to [treating it like] just a business venture. This was true of Relapse too. They were all fans of the band, and great with the reissues. On our return to this industry, we’ve been lucky to meet up with two labels that really have a lot of passion for our band and music. That makes all the difference in the world in terms of marketing and attention, and the ability to bring it to fans around the world.
Michael went out and got Dillinger Escape Plan, Morbid Angel, Cynic, us … he’s making a stab at the top position. It’s like the stock market; you look at who’s on top and who’s about to be on top. We feel Season of Mist is on the way to the top. It’s better to be with a label that’s climbing as opposed to one that’s falling.
The bands you just mentioned … I bet the Season of Mist holiday party is going to be jamming!
[laughs] Yeah, it’ll be a great Christmas party!
You mention the Atheist reissues that came a few years ago on Relapse. Those turned out great! Awesome extras! What a treat!
I give all the credit to [Relapse staff]. I almost never had to write or call to tell them to change anything. There’s a guy there named Gordon Conrad who is tremendously efficient and disciplined. I respect him a lot. Everything about our dealing with him was flawless.
I dig Gordon!
This is at a time when I had a pretty bad taste in my mouth about the business of Atheist. In the very beginning, we signed a nightmare deal. We never saw a penny from anything that we ever did in the past.
They basically stole our music. We never got any statements or anything. It was just disgusting the way they handled us. We had such disdain for the business, so we were like “Oh, man, we have to do this again?” It probably had something to do with Steve’s [departure from Atheist to] go to college. I mean, what are you gonna do when you’re on a European label? It’s very difficult to have litigation about it when you’re a young Florida band with no money. You’re not going to go to Europe to sue them.
All these years went by and I essentially just, um, kinda took the albums back. Relapse remastered them and did a great job. It was a lot of fun to bring that back. For making it possible for us to do Jupiter, I really owe a lot to Relapse. And Season of Mist does as well. Now, obviously it’s a conflict of interest. In turn, Relapse has our catalogue for another two years. So, one hand washes the other. Whether they realize it or not, it’s a big fuckin’ three-way. A ménage à trois with Atheist. [laughs]
[laughs] Well, it goes to show the caliber and quantity of people who want partner with Atheist.
Right. Typically, that doesn’t happen; you get with a label and you stay with that label. We talk about all the time is how lucky we are to have this kind of … You can’t purchase this kind of status or anything. It’s a straight-up 20-year journey that can be appreciated by people who’ve been part of it. It’s nice. I’ve been in the situation with Neurotica, a brand new rock band in a world with hundreds of them. Atheist was such a unique band and Neurotica is a cookie-cutter band, in a way. We weren’t breaking new ground. We were just pushing it up a bit, not making a musical statement like Atheist does.
Again, it was never anticipated; it just kinda happened organically. I’m looking back on it and I just start thinking that we’re very fortunate that we stuck to our guns and play the kind of music that we believe in. I tell young bands all the time, “Sure, everybody crinkles their noses at your music right now. But if you realistically think that what you’re doing is visionary and different, then stick to your guns. If nothing else, when the dust settles you’ll have a great piece of art that you can be proud of. As opposed to a sell-out piece of shit —
— that got made based on somebody else’s opinion.” I tell guys at the label this all the time: “When it comes to pictures and imagery, we as a band have to live with this for another 20 years. You guys will move on and work on other bands and such.” So if you pick the wrong photo and send it out — not that they have — that’s something we have to live with. That’s why we keep a very close eye on that. We don’t look like the average band. We’re not fully clad in leather. This was something people used to bust our balls about. “You guys don’t look like you sound. You look like some beach college kids.” Well, whatever. We don’t have to put on a bunch of nails and spikes to be interesting and heavy.
Coming back to Jupiter, I think it’s important in this day and age that we pay close attention to that. At least shave our faces and wear clean shirts. [laughs] Let’s take some good pictures, because we’ve had to look at the same photographs for 20 fucking years. That photo of me with the bullet-smiley face on my fuckin’ shirt … if I have to see that picture one more time… It’s either that or us sitting in Roger’s mustang. There are only, like, three pictures of us circulating all these years. Those guys at Season of Mist have been hugely facilitating of our pickiness.
I’m glad we’re talking about photos. When you open the Unquestion-able Presence booklet, you see four guys sitting in a wide-open sun-lit field. In other words, it’s the total opposite of the dark, wet claustrophobia of metal. 100% genre-busting. Please don’t think that it went unnoticed by metal people who weren’t super-macho and hopeless.
That’s cool. Even if one person noticed the intentional non-darkness … We’re huge fans of contrast. Clearly, in our music, there is a lot of contrast. Visually, we want to contrast as well. We just did it again with Jupiter: We thought, well, it’s a dark, mysterious album that’s kind of strange and all over the place. Let’s go back to our roots and take pictures on the beach. [laughs] How many metal bands do you see on the beach? Not a lot. We grew up on the beach and that was where this music was created. The rest of the guys came down from Georgia back home to Sarasota. It was a lot of fun — the first time the whole band was here in 17 years. We headed right back out to the beach where we started. All the photographs were taken in and around where we grew up. I still live here in the same place. It’s clearly very easy to create imagery that scares people, but I think the music does enough of that. [laughs] It’s about the yin and yang of sounding one way and looking a different way. That confuses people. We love to confuse people. [laughs]
[laughs] Can we talk about a former member of Atheist? What is guitarist Rand Burkey’s present and future with Atheist?
That’s a complicated question. We’ve been very careful to keep some class about ourselves in dealing with Rand. But I take a great verbal beating from a lot of people because Rand isn’t in the band — as if it’s my fault. Rand and I were notorious for arguing endlessly. He argued with everybody in the band, but he and I got into knock-down-drag-outs. [He’d argue,] “You can’t just put riffs together and call it a song.” Well, that’s not what I’m doing, dude, but this is how you write songs. You have to put one next to the other and sew it together as seamlessly as you can. That is songwriting, my friend. And he’d really argue with me about it.
We would write songs in front of, literally, a hundred people at our rehearsal spot. There’d be a bunch of kids sitting around, drinking beer, and smoking pot. They’d all be sitting there staring at us while we were yelling and screaming “Fuck you!” It was intense. We’d argue about it for five minutes and then we’d be like, “Rand, just play it. Everybody! Two, three, four.” And we’d play all the chaotic shit that [characterizes] Unquestionable Presence and Piece of Time. People would be like, “Whoa, man!” But it looked like we were going to break up at any second.
And then we’d, y’know, click sticks and play amazing music. That’s just the way that the early stuff was written. I’ve never met anyone like Rand in my life. I don’t know anyone who plays like him or behaves like him. That’s good and bad. He’s put himself in some shady shit. When the reunion was coming together, in order to put the deal together to get the albums back out … Steve wasn’t even playing drums at that point. He stopped for 14 years. That’s almost not fair. He’s so fuckin’ good. He stopped for 14 years and he’s still killing it like he’s doing now.
You said fourteen?
Isn’t that crazy? Fourteen years — not a stitch of drums. He picked it back up when the reissues came out. He didn’t do it because of that; he just woke up one day and needed to play drums. And I’m thankful for that.
But Rand got into some legal troubles and did a little time in jail. When that happens, it becomes impossible to travel to Europe. You can get a passport, but you can’t risk flying the whole band to all the way Belgium only to get to the border and have them say that the rest of the band can go, but this guy cannot. That’ll happen in England and a lot of countries. They like nothing better than to shun an American. “Sorry, pompous American, but you can’t fuckin’ come into our country.”
And we tried to explain this to people forever. It’s like, “Do you want us to come and play in Europe or not? If you do, we’re goingto have to do it without Rand.” There’s just no way around it; he got himself into too much trouble.
Now, fast forward to writing Jupiter. I very much — as much as everybody else — wanted Rand to be part of the album. I went to his house on three occasions, and, uh, on all three occasions he was so … [exhales] We’re gonna have to air it out a little bit here: He had a pill problem. It was really embarrassing; he was falling asleep in the middle of the conversation. I don’t have time for that shit at my age. I mean, I still love to smoke pot and do what I do. I still love fun. But I do it in moderation. And when it’s time to write, that’s no time to be high on pills. Thankfully, he’s trying to pull his shit together these days. But it’s too late, unfortunately. We had to sort of cast out to sea on our new boat.
The day before we went into the studio to record Jupiter, I tried at every turn to get Rand to be part of it. Rand was very verbal and bashed our attempts to go on without him. “You can’t do this without me.” It’s like, “Well, Rand, that’s not really the case. You brought some interesting color and you’re an amazing guitar player. But …”
I’ve never met anybody like Rand and I praise his playing on all the albums. There’s no one like him. He plays upside-down, by the way. All the stuff he’s playing upside down; the strings are backwards which makes it even fuckin’ crazier. We’re both left-handed — it was a very weird band [with] both of us playing guitar backwards — but he plays literally upside-down. It’s already hard to play our music right-side up; but when you have to pick backwards and your heavy string is on the bottom, that’s crazy. I give him all the praise in the world as a musician. But as a human being, it’s a little hard to deal with him.
Now, we all love Rand and I still see him and talk to him. Steve won’t talk to him anymore, because Rand made a lot of waves with Steve and talked a lot of shit. Steve’s not really the type of guy who will tolerate that kind of shit. I’m not either, but I’ll debate him more than Steve will. The day before [we entered] the studio, I invited him. “Just come up for the kids, man. Come up and play a couple solos on the record. That’s all you have to write for.” The songs were already done and assembled. So he came to my house; I played him the record. He looked at me, shook my hand, and said, “I don’t know how you did it, but you did it.” I was like, “Thank you, man. I appreciate that.” Because it was the first time he acknowledged that we could do it without him.
He didn’t start the band with us. Me and Steve started the band and we had a different guitar player for a long time. So he was never a part of the band where if he wasn’t there, we weren’t going to be able to write what we normally write. Of course, his solos are different; there’s nobody like Rand. But I tried to get him up and get a couple solos out of him. He said, “Okay, I’ll be there” and he never showed up. Never called. I want kids to know that we did everything we could to make this man a part of everything we’ve done since we came back. He has made it possible to not be a part of it. So, if you want to yell at someone, yell at him.
Like, “What the fuck is wrong with you, you know? [laughs] Get your shit together! Put the pills down, smoke this for a minute, and play some metal that we’d love to hear from you.” But he wasn’t able to do it this time around. That’s not to say that when we do another record we won’t try to pull him in to do some solos. But he can’t tour. You have these kinds of logistical problems when you go to Europe. It’s a nightmare and you can’t afford to have somebody not be able to make it. Then all of the sudden, we’d have to cancel all these shows and everybody would be very angry. I made the best decision for the team [and] to make it possible for us to do all this. That is where Rand is. He’s still here; he’s trying to clean himself up and get his life together and make some music. He just wrote me a few days ago asking me to come over and work on some material that he had. You know, I think it takes too much energy to hate. So I love Rand. And I love [abruptly departed bassist] Tony Choy. I look forward to jamming with those guys in some capacity sooner than later. For now, me and my good friend Steve Flynn felt like we needed to carry on with what we do. I’m happy that we did. I’m really glad that we didn’t wait, because I don’t know what we would’ve been waiting for. It would never have materialized with Rand. He’s gotta turn it around and I hope he does. I’ll be here as a friend to help him. But to sit and write riffs and have somebody fall asleep in mid-sentence was … I felt like I was dealing with Steven Adler.
Fuck, man. You can kinda understand why Slash wasn’t able to continue working with Steven Adler even though they were best friends for years. They grew up together. It’s a very similar situation; me and Rand grew up together, but he was a shell of his former self. And I didn’t want to air it out for him at that point. I didn’t want to air out his dirty laundry then. I still feel a little uneasy. You’re the first person that I’m telling the actual specific reasons that he’s not part of Atheist. Legal troubles and pharmaceutical issues really kept him from being part of this.
As a guitar player, I find it personally offensive that an offer to play on an Atheist record was turned down. By anyone.
[laughs] Well, you’d kinda have to know him to know. He didn’t turn it down. I think he had every intention of doing it, but his life was in a spiral. [In that state,] your intentions are to find your next high. Obviously, he could’ve picked up the phone and said, “Guys, I’m not going to be make it. I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity.” But that’s not his style. You’d have to know him. He’s a mad scientist of a person. He makes lightning machines. He’s a conspiracy theorist. He’s one of these guys that’s constantly questioning government; he’s a radical. So, it wasn’t that he turned it down. The universe didn’t have it in mind for him at this particular point in the journey. I’m not entirely sure it was his intention to miss the opportunity, but I hear ya. You get chance to play on anybody’s record, for fuck’s sake, that’s going to be distributed worldwide … you might try to do that. That’s a good idea. [laughs]
Speaking of guitar playing, let’s talk about the guitar playing on Jupiter that you did. In light of your health issues, that’s a nice surprise.
I played on every record. There’s a big misconception that my hand is all retarded and doesn’t work. That’s not true. I try to explain this to people so many times in interviews. It’s just that I don’t play live, and that’s it. I don’t play live because I have carpal tunnel in my hand. But I play every single day. I teach guitar. Me and my guitar are still very best friends. I wrote probably 65% of the guitar stuff on Jupiter. Jonathan [Thompson], our new guitar player, had a lot of good stuff, as did [guitarist] Chris Baker. But I’m very, very involved. That’s why I kept telling people, “Trust me. It’s really gonna be Atheist as authentic as it’s ever been. It’s me and Steve Flynn like when we were 16 years old, smoking weed, and fucking writing crazy riffs and putting them together and confusing people.”
I like the fact that I don’t have to play on stage anymore. I think it makes Atheist a better live band because I’m not stuck to the mic stand. To me, bands that have a guy out front leading the party … that’s another thing that people are kinda puzzled by when they see us live. They might expect us to be a nerdy, pencil-behind-the-ear kind of metal band. We’re completely a broken-bottle, punch-you-in-the-face fuckin’ extreme technical metal band. Plus, we have a great fucking time on stage. While we’re pulling off all this crazy shit, we tend to have smiles on our faces. We’re really enjoying it. I think that’s a little confusing, especially to Europeans. [affects accent] “You gice seem to be haffing such a grete tyime on stege smilink.” Fuck yeah, I’m smiling — dude, I’m in Holland! I just came from the hash cafe! I’m having a great fucking time. There’s a crowd, full of people, that all know our music.
I love people; I love to go out into the crowd at festivals. I love the reaction when I go out to watch a band play: Everybody’s watching the stage and then they look over their shoulder, like, “Hey, wait a minute. What are you fuckin’ doing here?” “What do you mean? I’m just like you! I love to be out in the crowd watching the concert just as much as you do!” I never understand [performers] that hang backstage and stay there. Why did you travel all the way to the other side of the world to meet people who enjoy your art and not meet them. I want to meet everybody. I love hearing the stories. We were in Germany and some lady told me that she’s a school teacher and grades algebra papers while she listens to Atheist. I couldn’t have heard that story if I was hiding out backstage.
I want to meet those people and hear their stories about how our music has been a part of their lives as they’ve grown up. Because they’ve all grown up with us. When you have 20 years under your belt, people have great fuckin’ stories about your music. You’ll hear, “I remember being 19 in Finland. Me and my four friends had Unquestionable Presence and no one in Finland had it.” It’s amazing. We’ll walk off with groups of people to smoke out, and they can’t believe we’re there smoking … I can only imagine the bands that I look up to and enjoy … I wish that I could go smoke out with Ozzy. I wish that James Hetfield would still do a shot of fuckin’ vodka with me. The people that I look up to, I wish they were more personable. And I hate it when they’re not. I have the opportunity now, obviously, to play with a lot of people that I look up to — bands that’ve been around long enough, like Megadeth — and I’m always kinda disheartened by their attitudes. At what point in your life did you feel like you’re more important than everybody else? Because you sold x amount of records? You still shit and wipe your ass like everybody else, okay? Come back down to Earth. Go out and appreciate these people who buy your records — or you don’t get to go on stage. That’s how we feel.
We went to Greece and they were like, “Ah! Thank you for coming to Greece!” Well, thank you for fuckin’ having us! Are you kidding me? I’ve always wanted to go to Greece and you guys buying tickets to this show made it possible for me to come to Greece. So fuckin’ thank you for making that happen. I think bands forget that. If no one buys a ticket to see the show, you don’t get to go. So, fans have a huge role in our futures, and the thanks belong to them.
Are Atheist tour plans being organized yet?
It’s all underway. There are a lot of offers on the table. It’s difficult for us right now; we have families. I have a four-year old girl and Steve has two little girls. So for us to be gone for 280 shows a year … it’s not going to happen. We try to play as many festivals as we can in Europe. In America, we’re probably going to do something in February. [At this point, Kelly and I go off the record to talk about pending offers. –ADF] We’re going to try to do as much as we can. We really want to get to South America next year. And Australia and New Zealand — places we haven’t been. I’m pretty sure we’ve confirmed HellFest in France.
In America, it’s different. I can’t tell you how different Europe is with this kind of music. For every thousand fans we play to in America, we play to 10,000 in Europe. This is why kids in America need to understand [the need] to just step up and go to the fucking shows and buy the albums. Support this music like the European metal crowd has and you will in turn get festivals like Wacken and HellFest. If you steal that music and you pass it around to all your friends, then guess what? Your favorite band doesn’t get to come to town. They can’t afford it. It costs a lot of money to tour. I think that people have the perception that bands have a shit-ton of money; no, we don’t. We sacrificed that bank account for the art of music. Sometimes you get lucky enough to make a significant amount of money to be comfortable and there are bands making a living doing this. You really have to give up everything in your life in order for that to happen. At 20 years old, we were all ready to go. We were ready to tour endlessly; unfortunately, no one understood our music then. So, at this point, we’d rather do 100 great shows than 280 sub-par ones. So far, I don’t have any concrete stuff to tell you. Where are you at?
We’ll definitely play in L.A. for sure [laughs]. Places like that, we’ll definitely play. It may be more difficult for a fan in Montana; you might have to jump in the truck and cruise down to Texas to see us play. We’re going to do as much as we can, but we have to do it in two- and three-week spurts. [We’ll] do three weeks, then come home and get our families in order. Then head back out and play as many shows as we can.
It’s crazy but though I’ve lived in several big cities, somehow I’ve never been in the same time zone as an Atheist show in 20 years.
Well, come to the L.A. show and be our guest. We’ll have a great time, man. We always have fun and make ourselves really available. I can’t wait to get out and play these songs. I really feel like this material will blow the fuck up live. It’s explosive, moreso than any of our old material. It’s tailor-made for the stage. I’m excited to get it out there. And I hope America steps up this time. Kids probably wrinkle their noses when I say “Don’t steal the record.” But I mean it: Don’t fuckin’ steal the record. It’s not cool. You’re contributing to the death of this kind of music every time you steal an MP3. I want everyone to know that. It’s the equivalent of taking a loan out from the bank and buying a house, but 20 other people move in and don’t pay rent. We have to borrow money to make a record; that’s how it works.
It’s okay to download something only as a precursor to buying the record. I understand wanting to hear it first and not take a $14 chance. I get it. But once you’ve heard it, pick yourself up off the couch and go buy it. Make sure you support the bands so we can make [more records]. We’re not getting rich out here. Actually, we’re in debt. It’s all a part of us working together. We all make the music that people prefer to hear — as opposed to radio music — and now we need you to go out and buy the record so we can continue.
Everybody’s just stealing everything. Music is the only artform that you can do it. You can’t steal paintings or literature. If Steven King wrote a book and somebody started bootlegging it all over the place, you can bet your ass there’d be lawsuits. For some reason, music is stepped on like cocaine. You just cut it and cut it, and pretty soon bands can’t afford to make music anymore.
We really make sure to pay close attention to album covers and all the content that’s involved. There’s an amazing Jupiter gatefold vinyl that’s coming out. There are only going to be, I think, a thousand of them. On one side, you’ll have the vinyl; on the other, you’ll have a big poster. The extra artwork that’s on it is fucking ridiculous. Eliran Kantor did the art. When you spend time on the art and packaging, hopefully people will go and purchase it. There’s also a Digipak that’s coming out with a hologram-embossed cover that’s really incredible. We try to make it worth the money that kids have to spend on it.
Know what I don’t get? It’s so easy to buy records now; you don’t have to get a ride with somebody’s older brother to a record store somewhere.
You just order the shit. It takes a second.
Yeah, and it’s on your doorstep the day it comes out. You can pre-order Jupiter and have it on November 9.
In that respect, one wonders how music sales didn’t grow.
Not these days. When we go to Europe, those kids come with every [release] we’ve ever put out. And they’ll carry them around all day all over the festival grounds to get it signed. That’s incredible. That’s the spirit that American metal kids might take notice of. American metal kids sometime act like they’re doing you a favor by coming to the show. That kinda sucks; that mentality is typical American. These kids [in Europe] are 16 years old; they get on the train for 16 hours by themselves with all their vinyl and CDs — not just by our band, but by all their favorite bands — to travel all the way to festivals in Europe. And they travel all the way back. They save their money all year long and bust their asses to be able to have that experience. That’s the kind of passion we have for playing music; that’s the kind of passion we enjoy from people who listen to our music.
I only wish that American kids could kinda take notice of that; we would have a lot more great festivals if they did. We have Maryland Deathfest and maybe one other. To be a young metal fan in Europe is like … Man, you can go from early May to September on tour yourself, hitting festivals and seeing every fucking band in the world that you want to see. I look at the posters on my wall … Just one festival for instance: Aerosmith, Chris Cornell, Within Temptation, Blind Guardian, Joe Satriani, Korn, Maiden, Heaven and Hell, Dimmu Borgir, Life of Agony, Lamb of God, Atheist, Brutal Truth, Slayer, Amon Amarth, Mastodon … that’s one fucking show. That’s not going to happen in America unless kids get off the couch, buy records, and go to shows! Then promoters can take a chance. I mean, what a bill! That’s just one; you go to France, and it’s the same thing: 40 or 50 of your favorite bands in one spot. I would love to see that happen in America, because I would be there. I would enjoy seeing all my favorite bands.
Plus, it’s like a vacation for metal people. Surfers go to certain beaches on vacation, golfers and baseball nuts can do package tours, and so on. And people whose passion is metal convene and mingle at these weekend festivals. It’s more than a show.
Yep, you camp out for three days and just live it. A lot of times, we’re bummed that we have to leave. We’ll play at a festival and sometimes have to drive to another country. We played in Belgium, and we had [to get started on] a long-ass fuckin’ drive to France, and as we were leaving, [Iron Maiden’s] Steve Harris was ten feet away from us eating backstage. We were like, “Fuck!” Steve Flynn is the “mother” of the band, and he was saying, “We gotta go. We’ll never make the next show.” So we get ready, and I can hear Heaven and Hell playing “Falling Off the Edge of the World.”
I could just hear it! [hums “Falling” opening riff] I was like, “Oh, dude. Please!” And sure enough, that was my last opportunity to see Ronnie James Dio alive.
I was like, “Fuck, bro! I can’t believe we gotta leave. Please let me just see fuckin’ two songs!” So we’re getting in the van and I can hear one of my favorite songs ever being played in front of 30,000 people. Fuck! I could’ve been watching sidestage! [laughs]
Damn. How could you do it?
It was all to get to the next show. It bums me out, too, because Dio was such a nice man. Such a nice person [who] did so much for metal. Every time he’d throw the fuckin’ horns, you’ve got to think of Dio. He was the first one to throw that shit out there.
I love Dio.
He was amazing. A prolific pot-smoker as well.
I bumped into him about a month before he passed away. I had a chance to give him my love.
Aw, that’s excellent. Me and Steve met him in L.A. in 1990 [when we were promoting] Unquestionable Presence. He was just as nice as can be. I couldn’t believe how nice he was. A lot of people were there — Slayer, Soundgarden — and these bands were standoff-ish. It was at a casino, industry-only. Michael Schenker was playing poker, Ozzy was running around. We were like kids in a candy store. We come upon Dio, who’s the only person I’ve met who’s shorter than Steve Flynn — Steve felt like a basketball player [laughs] — and Dio was as nice as could be. Everybody should continue to buy Dio records. He did a lot for metal.
[sighs] Yeah. Hey can we back up for a second? You mentioned Hellfest 2010 in France. Is Atheist confirmed for that?
Yeah, it’s not confirmed. But it’s going to be shortly.
I hope you get to stick around to see Coroner.
Is Coroner playing?
I hope so. You never know. We may play on Sunday and they may play Friday, or vice versa. We run into people at the airport, actually. We’ve run into Voivod at an airport in Finland, then again in Germany. It’s weird. We went to play Bergen, Norway and we were always big fans of Destruction. We’re on the plane and all of the sudden [Destruction frontman] Schmier gets on. He’s like 6’5” and fully clad in this metal gear. It’s like, “Holy fuck! There’s Schmier! What’s up?”
That season in Europe, on any given airplane, you could be [flying] with any number of hooligan fuckin’ metal bands. If you get on a plane with Amon Amarth, you fuckin’ know it; there are five vikings in the back. [laughs] We ran into Death Angel in Italy. They were really not nice to us when we were younger; we played with them in I want to say 1990 when they were all over MTV, were so young, and had a major label deal. They were one of the first thrash bands to get that outside of Metallica. Fast forward to all these years later: Our guitar player lost his wallet and one of the Death Angel guys found it and brought it back. So we got to talking about it. They were like, “Aw fuck, I remember that!” At the show we played together, 70 cans of lights at the outdoor show fell on the stage and almost killed Dennis Pepa and [founding Atheist bassist] Roger Patterson.
Ironically, Dennis Pepa [later was involved in] that crash and almost died; and obviously, Roger died. That was a weird story to discuss among ourselves. They weren’t aware of [that connection]; since they were a much bigger band, we knew about their accident. So we played with them in Finland and had a great time together. We partied together to the wee hours. It was a nice bit of redemption for us. We wanted to be friends, but they were just so fuckin’ rude to us back in the day. Now that we’re all older and not scrapping and clawing for positions in the metal pecking order, it’s nice to sit back and be happy about the past and be able to talk about it with contemporaries. So, we love the Death Angel guys; we get along with them great. Actually, they recorded with Jason Suecof, the same guy who mixed Jupiter. They’re a great fuckin’ live band. It’s a lot of fun going to Europe and just running into all these bands. Hopefully, we’ll get to stick around and see Coroner. Hopefully we play on the same day.
That’d be great for me!
I’m glad they got back together. Is it the same three-piece?
Yes. I don’t have too much information about their plans beyond Hellfest 2011, but it’s supposed to be the same line-up. To have Atheist, Cynic, and Coroner operating again is just so great.
Guys my age are finally getting their way. It’s really nice.
[laughs] Well, guys our age are getting their way too. [laughs] This is what we dreamed of when we were kids. Playing with Coroner back in the day, we always felt like they’ve never gotten enough credit.
You know, we see Pestilence mentioned in the same breath as Atheist and Cynic, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. I actually see Pestilence mentioned alongside Florida bands like they were a Florida band. They’re from Holland and they were not part of this movement until it was well underway. Their only thing that made them fall into this situation is Tony Choy, [onetime Atheist bassist]. For 15 years, I had a lot of disdain for Patrick Mameli. Basically, Roger had died eight weeks prior and Tony Choy was in our band. We had nobody that could play like that; there was no technical metal back then. We went to Morrisound Studios and we had our demo for Unquestionable Presence. At the hotel, Patrick came in and heard the demo — our pre-production — and immediately went and fired his bass player and hired Tony Choy [away from Atheist]. He had a bigger deal at the time and more money than we had. So the next thing we know, we lost our bass player because we couldn’t afford to keep him. That was really something that really pissed me off.
That’s kinda shitty.
I got in Patrick’s face and had to say, “Our bass player just fuckin’ died, dude. You could get anybody to play bass on your album.Your shit is simple. Our stuff that Roger Patterson wrote can’t be played by just anybody. [Even] Tony is having a hard time playing it. [laughs] We can’t just go and get somebody else.”
I had a lot of bitterness, and it wasn’t for Pestilence as much as it was Patrick. Fast forward to the Czech Republic in 2009. We had a chance to talk for well over an hour about all that. He was like, “I don’t understand why you’re so pissed off.” Well, let me explain it to you. What’s funny was that he and I were in a trailer, and there was a photographer there. At one point, it was like, “Hey, you might want to take a picture of this. You have two guys who’ve been notoriously mad at each other for 15 years. It’s just you and us in the trailer; you might want to snap some pictures.” [laughs] Because it might not happen again. It was funny.
But we were able to grow up, be adults, talk about it, and move forward. So now we’re all cool. But still, when it comes to technical metal, I don’t really see where Pestilence was involved. They went on to do some more progressive things, but I don’t really think they shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as a Cynic or an Atheist. That’s not disrespect. I love Malleus Maleficarum; I fucking love the Martin van Drunen era of Pestilence. Me and Roger used to ride around and listen to those records all the time. So I have enormous respect for Pestilence as a band. Their place in history [is connected moreso to] death metal. As far as [being] a progressive metal band, I’ve never seen their music as such. I thought Coroner definitely deserved to be in that discussion, but they never were for some reason. So let’s give Coroner a little love right now!
Oh my yes.
They were phenomenal players and a fucking ridiculous three-piece. Great fuckin’ band. Is Cynic playing Hellfest next year, too?
I don’t have that information.
[laughs] I’ll call Paul and find out.
Then what we could do is get Atheist, Cynic, and Coroner together for a group photo.
That’d be sweet. [laughs]
Here’s another example, though a minor one, of Atheist standing apart: In the Unquestionable Presence booklet, there’s a shout-out to a marijuana-legalization organization. This was at a time when all the inlays of Roadrunner (then Roadracer/RC) releases carried anti-drug messages. Do you remember those?
Yes, I do.
The graphic was a syringe broken in half or something.
And here was Atheist on a label that allowed you to basically instruct listeners — for the optimal Atheist experience — to smoke a joint while listening. That was awesome.
[laughs] Well, let’s be clear about something: Weed is not a drug. Certainly I’m not a fan of cocaine, heroin, or prescription meds. But, one of the most beautiful botanical creations ever certainly deserves a tip of the hat from Atheist. Our music would not be the same without it. And that’s not to say that everybody in the band smokes. Steve will smoke occasionally, but it’s not a part of his process; it’s an absolutely essential part of my process.
People ask me, “Why do you say that? It kinda cheapens you as a man.” Really? Does it? Why? You can go do shots of tequila and that makes you more of a man? Go fuck yourself. I’ll roll a joint any day and maintain my composure while you’re sloppy drunk drinking your tequila, making mistakes, and pissing people off. That’ll never happen with any weed that I smoke or that anybody smokes. I’ve always felt it was a travesty. I really thought by now [that legalization efforts] would be further along. Especially with the economy in America being what it is, we’re still bitching about weed? And doctors will prescribe [oxycodone-based meds] to normal people with back pain who turn into drug addicts. These 14-day cycles of oxy [are prescribed] and people can’t get off them. You can live your life as an executive and suddenly, you hurt your back working out, your doctor gives you oxy, and next thing you know you’re addicted to those fucking things three months later. Now, it’s ruined your life. That will never happen with marijuana, ever. The fact that it’s not used in America on a legal level is disgusting. Shame on us.
I’m following the lead of the people in Holland. Holland is such a beautiful country. The people are very mellow and sweet, the language is beautiful, and everyone’s high. Prostitution is legal … it’s just a different environment there. Crime is low. I think money and law should be used for other things that are causing so much grief in our society. In the year 2010, I thought my contemporaries would be saying, politically, “Enough of this shit.” We put Tommy Chong in fucking jail for nine months!
You hear me? Nine fucking months Tommy Chong is in jail? I’ve met Tommy on a couple occasions because I owned head shops for 13 years, which facilitated my musical career with Neurotica. Richard Ashcroft was our attorney general for a few years, and that guy was a fucking criminal. Did you know that guy spent $50,000 covering the busts of statues in the White House that had cleavage showing? He was offended by it, so he wrote a $50,000-check our of our account to cover that.
I promise you, that guy has had more than one thing in his ass in his life. That guy is fucking creepy. And he’s the same guy who went after Tommy Chong. When he was prosecuted, the judge actually mentioned his movies. It’s like, “Helllllooo? He’s a fucking actor!” Are they going to take down Bruce Willis for kicking the shit out of people in Die Hard? That’s the way it was handled and Tommy got fucked on that, man. But he took it on the chin like a man, so his family didn’t go down. They threatened to take his family and put them in jail. So he did nine months in federal prison. He’s my fuckin’ hero. I guess that was a long answer, too. [laughs] I am definitely in favor of the legalization of marijuana and have been for many years.
We loved that Atheist just put it right out there as part of their lifestyle.
And don’t forget Mountain Dew! I exclusively drink nothing but Mountain Dew. It’s probably going to be the death of me someday. I have pictures from 1988 with Mountain Dew [cans resting] on my amp. [laughs] I don’t drink water or milk or anything but Mountain Dew. It keeps me going. Isn’t that crazy?
That’s wild because I’m a certified guzzler of Mountain Dew Code Red. You into that stuff?
Nope. I’m hardcore green. [laughs] I tried [Code Red] and was like, “Yuck. This is horrible.” We’re talking 20 years of drinking the same exact soda. I can unscrew the bottle with two fingers. It’s such a permanent fixture in my hand that I’m surprised that the label hasn’t left an image on my palm. [laughs]
It’s a joke among me and my friends that the quickest way to my heart is a pack of cigarettes, some weed, and a Mountain Dew. You’re guaranteed to hang out with me for any length of time. [laughs]
Our rider that goes out to the promoters [reads] “Mountain Dew — not Sprite. Not fucking Mello Yello. Not any of that shit, please. Mountain Dew.” I try to be like David Lee Roth with the brown M&Ms. There’s a huge difference between Sprite and Mountain Dew, thank you very much. The unfortunate thing is that in Europe, there is no Mountain Dew.
Nope! You go over there and everything is Coca Cola products. You’ve got Sprite, Coke, fuckin’ Fresca —
It’s really hard. But in Eastern Europe … When we went to Romania, of all places, I see a 7-11 and, holy shit, I know 7-11 has got to have Pepsi products. Sure enough, I go in and there’s fuckin’ Mountain Dew. And I’m the happiest guy. [laughs]
We’d already been over there for a period of time, and I hadn’t had any. So I bought ‘em up and took ‘em to my hotel room. I was so excited. My fuckin’ Dew, man!
We should pitch a reality show where we go to different parts of the world and race to find Mountain Dew. Though you’ve already got an edge on me.
[laughs] A quest to do the Dew! Actually, I’ve thought about [approaching] Mountain Dew to say “You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody that pimps your product for two decades who is not endorsed by you. You endorse skateboard kids; endorse Atheist! I’ve plugged your fuckin’ product endlessly across the planet for decades. I deserve some free Mountain Dew when I go on the road. That’s all I want. I don’t want a bunch of money or fancy fucking banners. I just want to make sure that when I go to Germany, I’ve got my Mountain Dew.”
Sounds reasonable to me. [laughs]
[laughs] “That’s all. Ship it over there to me and I’ll be the happiest guy ever. I’ll wear a Mountain Dew shirt on stage; I don’t give a fuck.” [laughs] I’ll sell out to the Dew! [laughs] But if I ever was contacted by the proprietor of a product, they’d ask “What’s the name of your band?”
Atheist’s triumphant new record Jupiter comes out November 9 on Season of Mist. Pre-order here.