DATE OF INTERVIEW:
4th May 2007
Hugely under appreciated in their day, Atheist excited the metal world towards the end of 2005 with an announcement they were reforming for some live performances the following year. The reunion was preceded by reissues of their 3 albums - 'Piece of Time' (1990); 'Unquestionable Presence' (1991); and 'Elements' (1993) - that, until then, had been selling on eBay for large sums of money. These much sought after CDs were loaded with rare bonus tracks, and provided a new generation of metal fans with the opportunity to discover, and re-discover, the music of this seminal band. Way ahead of their time, the Floridian iconoclasts were undoubtedly responsible for inventing a musical sub-genre with their unique style of jazz-inspired progressive death metal, and Atheist's far reaching influence can still be heard in the compositions of many bands on the scene today. Contemporary acts such as Psyopus, Sikth, Textures, Zero Hour, Dillinger Escape Plan and many others, all owe something to Atheist - the forefathers and pioneers of the technical music they play.
Atheist have been plagued by both misfortune and tragedy during their career, including the utterly sad loss of original virtuoso bass player Roger Patterson who died in a road accident in 1991 when the band were travelling back home to Florida after a US tour supporting Swedish doom legends Candlemass. The 'curse' of Atheist continued in 2006 as original guitarist Rand Burkey was unable to travel to Europe for legal reasons; the first reunion date at the UK Bloodstock festival went far from smoothly; and, perhaps most bizarrely, bassist Tony Choy fell through the stage mid-performance at the Evolution Festival in Italy! Further, the band's charismatic frontman, Kelly Shaefer, only performs live as the band's vocalist now due to his long running battles with tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome which prevent him from playing guitar. Apart from his life as a musician, Kelly's also a talented painter, the owner of 2 smoke shops, a proud father, and runs Starrfactory Records. When he very kindly agreed to be interviewed for Metal Discovery, I had the opportunity to quiz him, amongst other things, about the future of Atheist; the planned reunion of Neurotica; his paintings; and his audition as vocalist for Velvet Revolver. Read on....
METAL DISCOVERY: The reformation of Atheist was originally announced as a temporary reunion, but you already have live dates booked for 2007. Did you anticipate the re-union lasting this long and what can fans expect from Atheist in the coming months?
MD: There are a lot of jazz-inspired passages and time signatures in Atheist’s music, particularly on the ‘Unquestionable Presence’ album. Was anyone in the band a fan of jazz or listened to any music from that genre? Perhaps John McLaughlin – the pioneer of jazz-rock fusion music?
MD: I remember hearing that there’s gonna be no new album under the name ‘Atheist’, though you haven’t ruled out new recordings released with a different name. I notice on the official Atheist homepage, there’s a picture of a piece of paper, presumably handed to you at a gig, saying “Create new album – You will write history (again!) from Greece”. Has this been put on there as a ‘tease’ for fans or a kinda proclamation that there will be a new album at some point?
MD: Bloodstock was your first re-union date last year and transpired to be somewhat of a nightmare for the band on many different levels – losing a lot of your gear on route to the UK; cancelled flights; technical/sound problems during your set etc. When I was chatting to Alan, the stage manager, on the morning of your show and he told me you’d lost your guitars and other gear; I remember thinking – fuck, this is a band that really doesn’t deserve any more bad luck. Looking back now, how was that show from your perspective? Any nerves on stage ‘cos it was the first gig?
MD: At Bloodstock, there seemed to be a hell of a lot of people buying Atheist t-shirts both before and after your set. You certainly left your mark at the festival ‘cos the following day was like – spot the non-Atheist t-shirt! Did you expect such positive re-actions?
MD: Considering your band is called Atheist, I found it ironic that a fan yelled out “Tony Choy – you are god” as he appeared on stage at Bloodstock. Is the band name concurrent with your beliefs/world views?
MD: Bloodstock was the first time Atheist has played in the UK. Was it also your first visit to this country? And why did Atheist never make it over here all those years ago – a lack of promoters booking you?
MD: Any plans to come back over to the UK in 2007….please!!!
MD: Will Rand Burkey be playing with Atheist for your European dates this year?
MD: What are your happiest and worst memories from the 2006 re-union shows? I guess Tony Choy falling through the stage during your set at the Evolution Festival in Italy must feature amongst the worst!
MD: As a musician, how debilitating is the tendonitis you suffer from? In another one of your bands, Unheard, you play guitar – kind of 70s inspired stoner metal (listened to some mp3 tracks, btw – awesome stuff). Does your condition just restrict you from playing the more technical Atheist riffs/leads?
MD: Do you miss playing guitar in Atheist? Is it strange performing as a vocalist only or are you totally comfortable with that? You came across as a very confident frontman on stage at Bloodstock.
KELLY SHAEFER: No honestly we did not... it has been a blessing to say the least that we have been able to handpick festivals and shows we want to do. But all good things must come to an end, and in order to preserve the integrity of this band, and the 3 records we made, we will wrap it up with a show in NYC that we have yet to book at this time. We want to be able to record it and film it for a dvd/live record.
KS: Mahavishnu Orchestra...brilliance, along with Zappa, YES, Maiden...yes Maiden, Steve Harris was a huge influence on Roger Patterson. I think we all had a lot of love for music that was played well, with Rush being at the top of that list, both lyrically and musically. Musicians such as Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Allan Holdsworth, those guys push the boundaries of what is possible musically.... which is EVERYTHING!
KS: That was a letter from a fan in Greece that was passed our way, and we thought it was very cool, but it does not represent anything more than that. We will in no way fuck with the respect that Atheist has earned in the last 15 years. It's untouchable sort of, and if we were to try to make a record, automatically purists would hate it ...just because.
KS: It was a mess to be honest, I mean we did the best we could to pull it off, but as if these 2 new guitar players needed it to be any harder on them, they were asked to learn all of the Atheist material and then asked to play on a moment's notice on 2 foreign guitars for their first time ever on stage with us hahaha. It held true this curse we have had over the years...some things never change :) It started worse than it ended.
KS: Not at all....we never got that kind of reaction back in the 90s, people were always left scratching their heads and confused. We also rarely had merchandise back then cause no one wanted it. I remember standing next to Chris Barnes from Cannibal Corpse in 1992 watching them sell 100 shirts to every one we sold hahahah. Times have changed, it was refreshing cause they were a lot of young people buying them.
KS: Actually not really, for myself it was a great name for a metal band, my beliefs are very difficult to explain in short form. But it basically involves NO organized religion at all. I am sure the fan meant it as a term of endearment :)
KS: We were supposed to play in 93 on the Benediction tour, but I lost my passport and had a problem getting another one in time for the date, so the guys went over 1 day before me, but I could not make it in time. They were at the show, but could not play. Needless to say I was very frustrated to never be able to play in the UK and then to have Bloodstock go down with the tech probs....it was a drag!
KS: Well I sure would like to make that gig up that's for sure, but an offer would have to come really soon cause we are gonna wind this down and get to work on Steve's new band Gnostic, as well as the reformation of Neurotica, and my new label "Starrfactory". I want to bring Neurotica to Europe and release those records in Europe...so we all have many plans musically.
KS: Nope, he is not able to travel due to his legal issues. Shame he had to fuck it up for himself and all those who wanted to see him...including myself. He is a brilliant guitar player, but a social disaster.
KS: Well that fall in Italy turned into one of the coolest moments we ever had on stage cause the kids were standing there looking horrified and then they just started chanting TONY CHOY TONY CHOY, and then ATHEIST, ATHEIST! It was pretty incredible, and then Tony came back out with a borrowed bass cause his had been fucked up, and proceeded to rip heads off with a great solo spot. It was a moment.
Best ever moment was looking out at all of those people in Germany at Wacken Open Air! That for me was a career high for the amount of people we played for that day, and the response was breathtaking for us, it was a magical time. The sad part is the DVD footage all over Youtube is so weak cause it's a soundboard, and you cannot hear the crowd, and to me that makes it sterile and lame, but if you were there...you know what I mean by a magical hour.
KS: That's exactly right, it's very painful for me to play really challenging riffs such as the Atheist stuff. What happened I think is that playing and singing that stuff back then caused me to contort in a way that was not healthy for my hand, and in turn I got this carpal tunnel which is very painful and takes my grip away in minutes. So it's guitar in the studio only for me, and for writing. I still play every single day and still can play all of the songs of course, just not in a live setting. Thanks for checking out the Unheard stuff, I have plans to release that record as well, it's done and in the can ready to release..glad you dug it. I fucking love stoner rock, Kyuss rules!
KS: Well what most don't know is that I fronted my other band Neurotica for 8 years after Atheist broke off in 93. We toured a lot and finished out with the American Ozzfest tour in 2002, so I got a lot of practice in front of 10-20 thousand every day on that tour, so that will whip you into frontman shape quickly right? I feel a little too comfortable to be honest, it is more fun than I should be paid to have hahaha.
Kelly with Atheist at the Evolution Festival in Italy, July 2006
Photo used with kind permission from Dimitri Borellini -
(Kelly Shaefer on life as a frontman)
"I feel a little too comfortable...it is more fun than I should be paid to have...hahaha"