ATHEIST Frontman: 'People Always Hate What They Don't Understand'

Mark Morton of the Heavy Metal Examiner recently conducted an interview with drummer Steve Flynn and vocalist Kelly Shaefer of seminal technical metal pioneers ATHEIST. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow below.

Heavy Metal Examiner: What is the mission statement of ATHEIST now?

Shaefer: When Steve went to college, I always felt there was some unfinished business there. We had definitely not tapped the well; we were just starting to get our stride. For me, the songwriting was starting to get ferocious. I see this as a continuation of that era. I am not very far removed from the era when we were writing "Unquestionable Presence". For me, it was like two days ago. When we play, we are still in that headspace, only now, we have all these new weapons. Although we used a different drummer on "Elements", it still retained that ATHEIST integrity. We wrote that album really quickly. So, to have Steve Flynn back on drums, I am completely elated. And the last thing we want to do is fuck up the integrity of what we created back then.

Heavy Metal Examiner: When you decided to create a new album ["Jupiter"] after reuniting, did you have any fears of ruining the legacy you inadvertently created?

Shaefer: Oh definitely, that was the exact fear. When we did the reunion shows, we were just paying tribute to the catalogue. But everyone was asking for a new record, and we all lived 500 miles apart. So it really took the right situation for us to even be able to do it. But after a successful run of shows and festivals, the label was able to put together a budget that would make it work. I went to Atlanta and got in a room together with Steve to see what would happen, and the first thing that came out was "Second To Sun". It was as if we had gone back in time. I ended up having to fly to Atlanta about 15 times. Now, the other question was, "Is anyone going to like ATHEIST 20 years later?" That had remained to be seen. But hey, we just do what we do, and there's only one way we do it. We knew in our hearts that everything was going to be fine; the hard part was convincing everyone else.

Heavy Metal Examiner: And I'm sure, in the back of your minds, the sting of people hating you when you were in the game before still lingered.

Shaefer: People always hate what they don't understand, and any type of complexity at all was not welcomed back then. Everybody wanted straight-forward, brutal, knuckle-dragging metal. So, to bring any kind of intellect to that was certainly not welcomed with open arms. There is a little part of me that wishes people would have understood it sooner, but I don't think it would have made this nearly as special. It's always easier to look back in hindsight, but at the time, we were living through it, having dog food thrown at us, getting booed off the stage; I was not a happy guy back then. Nobody wants to come out and play their music and get that kind of reaction, especially when you work really hard on it. We were just trying to do something different, which typically should be welcomed in art, but it wasn't. So, I'm just glad the scene progressed, and actually progressed beyond what I would have ever imagined. It's one of the coolest movements I've witnessed, to see the music create its own legacy, without us out there supporting it. We never watered the plant, but it grew into a tree anyway.

Heavy Metal Examiner: When you sat down to put "Jupiter" together, did you have any forethought into how it might end up sounding? I know a lot of people said that it was a cross between "Unquestionable Presence" and "Elements", but I took it to sound closer to a missing link between "Piece Of Time" and "Unquestionable Presence".

Shaefer: Well, I believe it's a more technical record than "Unquestionable Presence"; it just doesn't sound like it. The riffing and time signatures are actually much more intricate than they were on "Unquestionable". I had written a lot of different songs over the years with various inspirations, and when I came back to write this kind of music, I think that had an impression on the way it ended up being put together, vocally especially. And it probably made it the catchiest thing we've ever done. Sure, some people are going to have problems with the vocals, especially kids who came into this genre from other bands and are finding out about us through "Jupiter", but I've never had a deep growl; I'm just not that kind of vocalist. But anyone who is familiar with ATHEIST knows that's always been the vocal style, and that we've never been the cookie-monster type.

Heavy Metal Examiner: Well, that's one of the things I always appreciated about ATHEIST is that the vocals were always more reptilian than demonic.

Shaefer: [Laughs] That's a great analogy. There's much more emotion and passion in the higher end vocal style, which is actually kinda rare in extreme music. It's very tortured, with a lot of agony, frustration, and concern in my voice. I think it just makes the album more honest. When we were writing it, I knew that I wasn't going to have to play guitar while I was singing, so I was able to loosely place the vocal lines, and that was never the case with the other albums. It really allowed me to go against the grain; which ultimately created a much catchier listen, because it wasn't syncopated with all these technical riffs. I also believe that, musically, "Jupiter" is the most explosive we've ever done, and that has a lot to do with the production of today, which allowed us to be able to do things we weren't able to do before. It's so clean and crisp, and it's really nice to be able to hear all the articulation.

Read the entire interview from Heavy Metal Examiner.

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