Stu Block - Iced Earth "The Band is Incorruptible. We Are Never Going to Falter…"
Interview with vocalist Stu Block as he discusses writing the new album, the band's current label contract and the goal of becoming a more independent artist
By: Eric Compton, Greg Watson | Published: Thursday, June 22, 2017
Iced Earth, copyright Century Media
Iced Earth continues to be the underground phenom that is closely associated with and admired by the true metal legions. Founding member and rhythm guitarist Jon Schaffer formed the band in 1985 as Purgatory, later to be named Iced Earth in 1988. Since then the group has had a revolving door of musicians over the course of 30-years. After the band's departure with beloved vocalist Matthew Barlow in 2011 (after welcoming his return in 2008), the Midwest powerhouse seemingly reinvented the wheel with singer Stu Block. The critically praised 'Dystopia' (2011) and 'Plagues of Babylon' (2014) returned the band to less-contrived conceptual albums and band mythology that ran rampant from 2007-2011. This was a welcome change that rejuvenated Schaffer and enforced a bond between himself and Block – not merely just co-workers but brothers-in-arms.
The band's 12th album, 'Incorruptible', arrives via longtime label Century Media on June 16th, 2017. The production duties were overseen by Schaffer with the mix and mastering handled by the famed Zeuss (Christopher Harris), known for his work with Hatebreed, Shadows Fall, and Queensryche. The fiery cover artwork and layout was created by David Newman-Stump and Roy Young. 'Incorruptible' is also the first album to feature new guitarist Jake Dreyer (Witherfall).
Maximum Metal's Eric Compton talked with singer/song-writer Stu Block about the band's newest album, the status of their Century Media contract, upcoming tours and how to become a "Virate":
MM: You are full into this new album push. How are things feeling right now for you?
Pretty good man, pretty good. Yeah, we are just doing the summer festivals. We just finished Sweden Rock so we are just getting the machine going again. We are super proud of this album man, we are super stoked for it to be dropped in the next few days. We are really excited to see what the fans think...it will be good man.
MM: You have to feel good having that little bit of time to recharge the old batteries after such an extensive tour on the last record.
Yeah, it was definitely good. We had to kind of make sure we got back on track. The new album is a really strong record. Yeah, it was an okay breather, but there was still work to be done during that time. Not a lot of people know about that stuff you know, so...
"We have to think of how to sell direct to the fans and come up with new packages and new exciting things that they actually want to buy." --Stu Block
MM: I'm sure there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes and that leads into my next question. Sort of the pretense going into this new album is freedom. You guys built the new headquarters aptly titled Independence Hall. I noticed in the past interviews Jon's been saying this record is sort of the last one under the current model for the band. What exactly does he mean by that?
Well basically what we're trying to do is become more independent. Basically, we kind of see a lot of writing on the wall in a lot of factions in this industry, especially from the record labels. You can see that they are seeing the writing on the wall. They have to revamp their whole business model. You know the bands have to revamp the way they do things. I think Iced Earth has such a great...Iced Earth is a legacy band. Iced Earth has been around for almost 30 years which is pretty fuckin' impressive. You know, for a band to be around that long and still have a very strong leadership...Jon has been a very, very strong leader. He's always had the vision and he has never faltered from it. 'Incorruptible' is really kind of based off of that. The band is incorruptible. We are never going to falter, you're never going to get a techno record or a metal techno record from an Iced Earth album, you know what I mean? We're never going to stray off the path of what the vision is, right? Just to sell more records...we aren't going to change that.
The independence aspect is how things have to change in the future, so we have to try to think of ways to be more independent. We have to think of how to sell direct to the fans and come up with new packages and new exciting things that they actually want to buy. A lot of things need to be taken into consideration and it's all really new. We are hoping to pave the way, you know, try to help people, help bands that maybe want to go more independent. More and more bands are doing so and we are learning from each other, how you can do it and how you can do it and still survive. How you can do it in this ever-changing industry. It is murky waters my friend, but you know what, it is waters we really want to explore and maybe hopefully pave the new way for other people to take that and even make it better. I think there is a whole new model but it is going to take a lot of bands taking chances and doing different things.
MM: So basically, with that being said, I am gathering this is the last Iced Earth album being released by Century Media, correct?
Yeah, yeah. I really don't want to comment too much on that but...we are hoping to move forward with however we want to...who knows. Maybe a new record label but hopefully paving our own path and having more control over our destiny. I think the band needs to be able to have more control over their future, that kind of thing. We only have our own selves to blame if things fall apart, right? Makes us work harder, makes everybody else work harder, makes the whole team work harder. With Jon's knowledge of the industry...he's got a plethora of knowledge. He has been there and done that. He is definitely a force to be reckoned with when it comes down to somebody who has been through almost every aspect of the business portion of the industry. He is very knowledgeable and we have to take all that and build off of it and I think it will be a really great future.
MM: Excellent, I am pretty excited about it. I wish you guys the best of luck on that. Going into what you just said...this is really your third time through the studio with Jon and in a lot of ways you guys are sort of joint custody of the child at this point. This is just as much your baby as Jon's. Do you feel more confident now as the vocalist for Iced Earth?
I have always had an element of confidence. Because you know Jon and I clicked really well right away. Right at the beginning of 'Dystopia', even the first song we wrote together. The bond has only built since then. You are going to see this on a track we wrote about it called "Brothers" on this new album 'Incorruptible'. It kinds of lets everyone know...the bond that Jon and I have and a lot of us have in the band right now. We are all very good friends and what has spawned from that is a really good friendship and really good heartfelt music and all that kinds of stuff. I feel like there is a good future for us.
Jon has been there a long time before I was. I always have to realize that it comes down to that. He gives us a lot of say on what we can do. He really enjoys hearing our input in a lot of different things...it is a really great melting pot of the band being symbiotic. Everyone has a vested interest. I do feel more comfortable, definitely. Since day one. Just because of that bond that solidifies. With everything we have been together. From the road to writing the albums...everyone feels very included in an equal way. It isn't just a one-sided thing. He really, really does enjoy hearing everyone's opinion on every aspect. He likes to hear what we have to say about it. We've helped make some really important decisions also. Maybe helped him make a final decision on something because of our input. We feel really proud of that and really blessed to have someone like that who has a longstanding legacy in the industry that wants our information and our input on that sort of stuff. We are all really stoked and it's a really good melting pot.
MM: That's great to hear. You and Jon discuss themes and ideas about how you want to take each album. The idea of this new album is you get ten individual songs that stand on their own. We don't have the 'Dystopia' themes or the Set concept story so what inspiration did you use to draw from lyrically and did you feel it challenging to not have that lyrical safety net to fall back into with a conceptual theme.
Yeah, I mean conceptual...I guess when people talk about Iced Earth albums there are some definite conceptual albums. Even 'Plagues of Babylon' was sort of a half conceptual album. Half was a conceptual theme and half were stand-alone songs. I can see certain aspects there is a concept and I agree with you on that. I would say it isn't any harder to spawn ideas because of the fact that we did have concepts. We also did have a decent break and we had a little bit of time and we were all going through things and we all had to deal with certain things.
When it came down to the writing process... Jon had been through some really personal, awesome healing processes that he had to do during that course of time. We all did too. We were really excited to kind of get all of those energies out on the album. When it came to the lyrical processes of this album, yeah there are a lot of stand-alone songs but a lot of...like...I guess if you really want to look at it there is a sort of underlying conceptual theme. I'm not gonna say it's...if you really want to read into it, it is a really soulful, spiritual album I feel. Songs like "Raven Wing" are songs that are very close to Jon for some very personal spiritual things he has been through. He is really trying to connect to the Earth more and try to connect to things in his whole surrounding. He has been doing some really cool things in his life that spawn that and spawn that idea. It is a really amazing and beautiful thing that spawned from that.
Being a history buff that Jon is, and I'm not as much a history buff as Jon, not as well versed as him, but I do love Viking folklore and the Viking age and Pagan age and all that kind of stuff. I have always been into it and we thought we would write a couple of songs about that. He wrote a song, "Clear the Way", about the Irish brigade and a very historical, very beautiful story, a tragic story about those very courageous men and women in battle. I wrote a song about the Great Heathen Army, about Ragnar Lodbrok's sons that took on the five Saxon kingdoms and tried to take down the Saxons and avenging their father's deaths and many others deaths. All of these things have been floating around for a while and sitting down and talking about them...putting them on paper...and it's not a hard thing once you put pen to paper and come up with the ideas. It isn't a hard process. No, it was actually really cool. To be able to write all those individual songs and touch on some very personal things too. Songs like "Defiance" that has lyrics I wrote about basically anti-bullying. Someone who has been through a lot and is rising above that and not letting those molding him or her as a person. To be able to be strong through those types of things. A lot of cool things we touched on and a lot of things that the fans will be able to connect to.
MM: It is a great record and I think uniform across the board everyone has really welcomed it. It kind of hits all of the Iced Earth eras in a way. It has some soft texture to it, has the strong anthems and things like that. It is really a great record. With "Great Heathen Army" that you mentioned earlier. Did you just feel that it begged to be the album's opener?
It is such an epic song and really, of course when it was written and once it was all done, it was really feeling like an opener. But that decision is done by Jon because he is really the master behind how the album is laid out and how the songs flow into each other. I help on it a little bit but that is really his job. Right from the beginning, man, we were like it really sounds like an opener. It is such a great epic, triumphant opening. It is just great for opening a record, it is such a great uplifting powerful song. Yeah, I think it was great.
MM: The song I really wanna touch on that had a bunch of us here at Maximum Metal talking was a song called "The Relic". It is really one of our favorite songs thus far on the record. Obviously, it is still growing on us, each song grabbing us at different moments. What is going on with the song and does it borrow any influence from H.P. Lovecraft's "Haunter in the Dark"?
No. The last album I wrote a song about Cthulhu. I love H.P. Lovecraft and I am glad you made that reference. No, it is more of a story that I made up and sort of imagined in my head for a while. It is really just part one of the story. It could have several different parts and we don't know where it will go. But, no it is just sort of a basic story I have had in my head for a while and wanted to tell the tale for a while. We're starting it now and we'll see where the story goes. I am continuing to write the story and build the character and all that kind of stuff. We will see where it goes. It was really creepy and there is a lot of personal stuff in that story. There is a lot of things in my faction and of course Jon likes to write that way too. Like "The Veil", different things, hiding them and things you can read into at a personal level. When you really read the lyrics, you can probably read into it personally. A lot of metaphorical things happening. So, I obviously leave it up to the fans on how they want to read into it.
MM: What is lyrically behind "The Veil", another really emotional track. A little slower song but really hits the heart. What is behind that one?
Jon wrote the lyrics to that song and it is a beautiful song. When he told me what his ideas were behind it, I was like man you really gotta go with that. It will touch a lot of people because people have lost loved ones in car accidents...in tragic accidents. It is a basic story about a couple, husband and wife. The husband passes in the car accident and she is severely injured and on the cusp of passing and she is still fighting but he is speaking to her from the afterlife, from beyond the veil and telling her how she doesn't have to keep fighting and how beautiful it is on the other side. They are going to finally be together for eternity. It is a very melancholic, very pulling, very loving but very emotional song. You want the person to survive yet you want them to be together. It tears you apart a little bit.
MM: Been married 15 years and that gives me chills just hearing you talk about it. It is well written.
I think especially it is horrible nowadays because honestly, we see a lot of cell phone usage on the road, getting into car accidents and all that kind of stuff. Not just drunk driving anymore but the use of cell phones is killing a lot of people. People not paying attention. Not only are those people using the cell phones getting into accidents but they are killing other people. It is tearing families apart and I am sure there are instances like this where people can really relate to it. Maybe it will make them think twice about making those wrong decisions before getting behind the wheel. Anything that might compromise them, from being torn away from their loved ones.
"...we see a lot of cell phone usage on the road, getting into car accidents and all that kind of stuff. Not just drunk driving anymore but the use of cell phones is killing a lot of people. People not paying attention. Not only are those people using the cell phones getting into accidents but they are killing other people."
MM: You guys have the new guitarist Jake Dreyer. He came in to replace Troy Seele. What did he contribute to this record other than just coming in and doing a lot of solo work and things like that? Did he have any lyrics or melodies that he brought to the table?
He just brought in a lot of solos. His solos are absolutely amazing on this album. Jake is an amazing player. Unfortunately, he came in a little later in the writing process and had to lay down the solos and stuff. I know Jon has been mentioning that he can't wait to sit and write some more stuff with him. I can't wait for them to write some stuff too. Luke (bassist Luke Appleton) also came up with some stuff. He came up with some of the music for "Defiance" so everyone is contributing. It is really, really cool. We are all in the same headspace and I'm really excited when Jake starts to add more than solos. Maybe rhythm guitar parts and maybe some guitar melodies and all that kind of stuff. Who knows man, I'm up for anyone putting out lyrics. If Jon approves of it and it's all cool. Like I said, we are like a melting pot. It isn't just one person doing one thing all the time. Unless you are Jon dealing with the business aspect and that stuff. Creative-wise we all try to just contribute and figure it out, right?
MM: I saw a high-profile name on the album credits--Zeuss was chosen to be the mixer, mastering, and engineering work as well. Zeuss, which is Chris Harris, is typically a hardcore guy. How did his name end up in there?
Well actually that was partly due to just discussions amongst the band. Jake had come in had mentioned him. I believe, don't quote me if I'm wrong, he had done some work with Kobra and the Lotus at one point. Just through his name being dropped Jon did some further research and ended up talking to Chris. They ended up hitting it off on the phone. They were really clicking on the vision and how they wanted things working. One thing led to another and he got hired on and I think it was one of the coolest things we've done. He is an amazing guy; an awesome person, he's not a dick or anything harsh but he knows what he wants and he is a freakin' genius behind the console. He is well-versed in engineering and all that kind of stuff. He has some great ideas and he is a funny guy and we all had a great time in the studio. We were laughing constantly. So, I think it was a great pick. I'm glad we were able to work with him. He has worked with a lot of great people. Super honored to work with Chris Harris.
MM: He has a killer resume...
...I'm telling you he earned that resume. That's for damn sure.
MM: You've got the summer dates for Europe. I know September and October is on the table for North American dates. Do you have any word on that or any support bands chosen?
Can't really say anything my friend, unfortunately. There is some really cool stuff that is going to be happening in the future around those times. Keep your eyes and ears peeled but unfortunately can't give you any details. Sorry man.
MM: Okay, so the true Iced Earth die-hards out there may get this question. I'm not sure, it might be lost on some. So, I'm gonna ask you Stu, how does one become a virate?
How does one become a virate? One just doesn't become a virate. It is a long process. To be continued. But we will see where we take this whole thing. It is just like a brotherly thing right now amongst the band, a very personal thing. We've been through so much together, we consider ourselves Viking pirates all melted into one sailing this steel pirate ship across the continents and taking the big tube in the sky. We have been through so much together man. But maybe, just maybe, you never know. Iced Earth might come out with a way for the fans to become involved in becoming virates but they will have to do certain tasks. But we will see.
MM: Stu, thanks for taking time with us and enjoy the rest of your day. Good luck with the record.